A group of protesters outside the courthouse in support of Indonesian former maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong on Feb. 10, 2015. Indonesian domestic workers have faced abuse in many countries in recent years. (AFP Photo/Philippe Lopez)

Maid Abuse Case in HK Highlights Plight of Migrant Workers

FEBRUARY 11, 2015

Hong Kong. Foreign maids in Hong Kong are guaranteed wages and benefits rare elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, but the recent ordeal of an Indonesian domestic helper has highlighted the abuses that still go on behind closed doors.

A six-week trial that saw a Hong Kong woman convicted of beating and starving Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has shone a spotlight on the financial hub’s 300,000 maids, with campaigners hoping the ruling will convince more to speak out about abuse.

And while some argue the city is far ahead of much of Asia and the Middle East in its treatment of migrant maids, critics say lax enforcement and poor support mean domestic helpers are either afraid to speak out or unaware of where to look for help.

“I don’t think there is any reason to rejoice,” Hans Ladegaard, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, told AFP.

“Erwiana may have won the court case, [but] her case is unfortunately far from exceptional,” said Ladegaard, who has been collecting cases of domestic worker abuse since 2008 as part of an academic project.

A Hong Kong judge on Tuesday found Erwiana’s employer Law Wan-tung guilty of 18 charges of physical abuse and a failure to pay wages, saying the Indonesian was effectively kept prisoner.

Erwiana told the court in vivid detail how she was “tortured”, starved, beaten and humiliated by her former employer.

She later told journalists she was happy with the ruling, but voiced hope for reforms in Hong Kong, calling on employers to treat “migrant domestic workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves”.

‘Like slaves’

In a 2013 survey of more than 3,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, nearly a fifth said they had experienced some form of physical abuse, while 58 percent said they had endured verbal abuse. Six percent said they had suffered sexual abuse.

The same year, Amnesty International condemned the “slavery-like” conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian women who work as domestic staff in Hong Kong and accused authorities of “inexcusable” inaction.

Local campaigning group HK Helpers has identified three issues in particular need of reform: the enforcement of maximum working hours, stopping illegal agency fees, and ending rules that gives domestic workers only two weeks to find new employers if they quit.

But others say that Hong Kong does more than most to protect its domestic workers, with laws requiring employers to provide a minimum wage, days off, and medical insurance — which are rare in other countries.

The International Labour Organization said in 2013 that just 3 percent of Asian countries awarded migrant maids weekly days off, and no Middle Eastern countries did.

Only 12 percent of Asia, meanwhile, guarantees minimum wages for domestic helpers, a figure that stands at just one percent in the Middle East, according to the ILO.

Under the controversial “kafala” (sponsorship) system that several Arab states enforce, migrant domestic workers are left completely at the mercy of their employers.

It restricts workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless they obtain their employer’s consent, trapping many in abusive situations.

‘Relatively better’

While on the surface the legal protection that Hong Kong offers domestic workers may be better, enforcement remains lax.

“Structurally it [Hong Kong] has things in place, reasonable labor laws for migrants domestic workers, but the rule of law stands only if it works. But it doesn’t,” London-based Amnesty International researcher Norma Kang Muico told AFP.

“Hong Kong is relatively better,” Laadegard echoed, “The main problem is that the laws are often not enforced.”

“It happens every day. Physical assault on domestic helpers is shockingly common. And the majority of abuse cases don’t go to court, not even to the police,” he added.

One positive to emerge from Erwiana’s case in the eyes of activists, however, is that when the case did go to trial, it encouraged other helpers to speak out.

“I think that the fact that Erwiana’s case has reached this far is already a very fine example where a domestic worker has come forward and asserted her rights has demanded justice,” said local rights activist Eman Villanueva.

According to Cynthia Tellez, who runs two shelters in the city for domestic workers who have suffered abuse, more than a thousand maids visited the facilities in the past year alone, and more were speaking out in general.

“There is one good sign that more maids are willing to speak out,” she told AFP. “But it also shows that Erwiana is not an isolated case.”

“The problem has to be seriously addressed.”

Agence France-Presse

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