What happened in Hong Kong to Erwiana Sulistyaningsih would likely never happen to a Filipina domestic helper today. After decades of jousting with abusive employers and corrupt employment agencies, Filipinas have learned their rights and established protective agencies. Indonesians and the other ethnic groups that have followed Filipinas to Hong Kong are not there yet.
The 23-year-old Indonesian fled back to her country bruised and battered after enduring months of violent abuse at the hands of her employer. She had arrived fresh from her village in Central Java, obviously without having been informed of what she should expect from her local employer; nor did she seem aware of any organization that could help in times of distress.
This kind of treatment, an open secret among maids, merits calling the Erwiana case “Hong Kong’s Shame.”
The importation of Filipina women began in the late 1970s when Hong Kong residents felt the need to have servants in their households. This was easily accomplished because the Philippines is just a two-hour flight from the territory. Furthermore, employers found it convenient that the women understood and spoke English (thanks to the Americans who’d colonized their forebears).
Over the decades the trickle of Filipinas grew into a flood, so that by the mid-1990s the yearly South China Morning Post survey of foreign inhabitants in the city showed Filipino citizens topping the list at over 200,000.
Various church groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sprang up because a many vulnerable migrant domestics were found to suffer various types of abuse. The litany of woes included overwork, inadequate food allowances and rest periods, underpayment or nonpayment of wages, and minor physical and major psychological abuse.
All these showed clearly that the terms stipulated in the labor contract were constantly being flouted. The NGOs took the lead and in the process shamed the Manila government, which had been remiss in providing proper protection for their migrant workers. In the process migrants became a political force back home and the local consulate began offering more services.
The rising awareness among Filipinos of their rights has kept Hong Kong authorities looking for ever-more malleable populations of downtrodden women. First they turned to the Indonesians. The Indonesian government, learning from the Philippine experience of gaining remittances of precious foreign currency, welcomed the chance to boost their economy by exporting their women too. They offered Hong Kong the advantage of having women schooled in basic Cantonese before they were shipped out.
As the Indonesian activist Eni Lestari once described it to me (having undergone the training herself), this involved several months of Cantonese language training during which the women were not let out of the gulag-like conditions of their camp. They were also taught how to remit their wages to Jakarta banks, and to work hard and not complain.
Once the domestics arrive in Hong Kong, the Indonesian Consulate seems more interested in acting as a recruitment agency than in providing protection for workers, Lestari charges. The practice proved so successful that by 2010, the yearly surveys showed Indonesians had overtaken Filipinas in number.
Bangladeshi women, Sri Lankans and Burmese have now been added to the domestic mix. This seems to be the Hong Kong reaction to the fact that Filipinas, thanks to their longer experience here, now have networks they can reach out to when encountering abuse from employers. They have become educated in knowing their rights, thanks to the social workers and publications like that written by lawyer Jim Rice called “Take Your Rights Seriously.”
Given the rising political sophistication back home and outrage in the Indonesia media over cases like Erwiana’s, it seems logical to assume that Indonesian women will gradually become more sophisticated about the ways of Hong Kong also. That will take time.
The Hong Kong authorities, in the face of protests over the Erwiana case, moved to detain her employer at the airport as she attempted to flee for Thailand. And police investigators were sent to Indonesia to get evidence from the victim, who is receiving treatment in hospital. Her constant dizzy spells resulting from having her head banged repeatedly against a wall, plus wounds on her face and limbs, indicate it will take her long to recover. The case is set to be tried in March against her employer who posted HK$1 million in bail.
Hong Kong writer Jason Wordie succinctly summed up the situation: “The treatment of domestic workers in Hong Kong, Indonesians in particular, is a widely known about but generally ignored disgrace. Their plight epitomizes Hong Kong Chinese society’s most loathsome, hypocritical aspects.”
Whether this case makes Hong Kongers admit that modern-day slavery has been practiced here for decades is hard to tell. The more likely scenario will be that the demand for docile females from poor countries will keep escalating amid the frenetic rush to build more wealth in this already rich Chinese enclave. The awareness that human rights for the workers should be observed will probably fall by the wayside.
Sadly, the commodification of female workers occurs around the world, and is very difficult to eradicate overnight especially when capitalist employers are as firmly entrenched as they are in Hong Kong. (Writer Isabel Escoda is a longtime Filipino resident in Hong Kong.)