Horrific case hides systemic exploitation of domestic helpers
The disfigured face of a young girl,
her body emaciated and tortured, feet swollen, eyes blackened, stared out the
front page of the South China Morning Post on Jan. 17 in a harrowing flashback
to WWII concentration camp victims.
The staid English language paper is
not given to exploiting photos of human misery. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s case
was just too outrageous for a society that should take human rights seriously.
Most Hong Kong families treat their
domestic workers reasonably, provide adequate food, allow Sundays off and give
extra pay for working public holidays. Many domestics endure scolding and
verbal abuse stoically. Physical torture is rare.
There are 300,000 domestic workers in
Hong Kong, divided almost equally between Philippine and Indonesian sources.
Couples can leave home to earn good wages while child-rearing, caring after
aged parents and household chores are juggled by the help. Helpers work from
dawn till midnight – then withdraw to the kitchen floor to sleep, as few HK
flats are big enough to spare a room.
No minimum wage, no residency
Asia’s ‘World City’ denies domestic
workers the statutory minimum wage which applies to all other labor. It also
blocked residency rights last year for domestic workers who have been retained
past the seven year tenure which would have made them eligible to apply for permanent
The largest political party in the
Hong Kong Legislature, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong
(DAB) was at the forefront of scare-mongering about residency rights for
qualifying domestics. Its vice-chairman Starry Lee Wai King raised the specter
of the territory being flooded by half-a-million Filipinos, which she computed
would load the government with HK$110 billion in capital costs, HK$26 billion
in annual recurrent expenditure and untold billions more in healthcare.
When challenged on an RTHK radio
call-in to justify her whacky projections, she admitted that it was “the worst
case scenario” and that it was up to the government to table its estimates.
Enough panic had been generated by then.
The other notable lobbyist against
residency rights for domestics was Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who had to resign her
Security portfolio in 2003 after failing to ram a security bill into law under
the Tung Chee Hwa administration. She now leads the New Peoples Party. Regina was
all for a preemptive National People’s Congress ruling by Beijing when the case
reached Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. She is referred to as the ‘fake
democrat’ by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fong On-sang.
Both ambitious women are members of
the Executive Council, which serves as a cabinet to the chief executive. The
cynical below-minimum wage for domestic helpers was crafted by this cabal
without consulting labour unions, domestic worker representatives or through
open debate in the Legislature.
Eight months of Hell, then go
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih had worked
for a Hong Kong couple in the New Territories. Over a nightmarish eight months,
Erwiana was starved, beaten, scalded with boiling water and had her face
thrashed black and blue. When the stench from pus and untreated open sores
became intolerable (for her employers), the couple gave her HK$100 not to speak
to anyone as they got rid of her. For good measure they allegedly threatened to
kill her and her family if she reported the abuse.
The Hong Kong Police seemed initially
disinterested in the case but were stung into action by local and international
press and TV reports. Erwiana is receiving medical treatment at a hospital in
Sragen, Java. Her torturers in Hong Kong are yet to be arrested or charged.
Sam Aryadi, vice-consul for the
Indonesian Consulate General in Hong Kong, shuffled the usual bureaucratic
feint: “We the Indonesian government will gather all the information so that we
can build a case against the employer” while admitting that initial
investigations confirmed Erwiana suffered “rather bad injuries.” The objective
of the Indonesian inquiry is not to initiate legal charges or seek compensation
for the victim. It is to submit a report to the HK authorities.
Last September another Hong Kong
couple was jailed for prolonged physical abuse of their Indonesian helper –
burning her with an iron and flogging her with bicycle chains. The Indonesian
Consulate seems not to have put in place effective mechanisms to protect its
citizens from such abuse. There is suspicion that collusion between government
staff at both ends of the trade with employment agencies makes it pointless for
victims to seek help from their national mission.
Why are agencies not monitored?
Poverty pools in Indonesia and the
Philippines are an abundant source of cheap domestic labor for working couples
in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. The supply is there while the demand is
high and growing.
Aggressive employment agencies
overcharge village girls up to 10 times their monthly wage prior to processing
their paperwork. They advance the upfront payment as loans. They spin tales of
high income and attractive working conditions, enticing their victims into
permanent debt at usurious interest rates. This trade requires collusion with
Immigration department officers for passports and permits. Syndicates operate
with great efficiency and profit.
Many agencies are disguised loan
sharks who should be blacklisted, de-registered and prosecuted. By co-opting
domestic worker organizations into the process, individual helpers will be
unable to report employer abuse and agency loan-sharking activities. Government
should take the lead.
There are widespread allegations by
women’s rights NGOs in Malaysia of pay-offs by employment agencies to
Immigration department staff. Indonesian and Philippine embassy personnel have
also been accused by domestic workers’ rights groups of being in cahoots with
employment agencies – which allows systemic exploitation.
The respective source and host
governments are fully aware of these malpractices but tolerate the modern slave
trade as an economic necessity. The business is lucrative for all involved
except those who do the work.
Western governments draw the line
The UK, US, Canadian and Australian
governments have rightly blocked the transfer of domestics into their countries
without conforming to minimum wage benchmarks and conditions of work. They
categorize exploitation of domestic help as human trafficking and are
uncompromising in enforcement.
The recent high profile case of
Devyani Khobragade’s false immigration declaration on her domestic worker made
international headlines when she was detained and strip-searched in New York.
Her government could not deny that she cheated but claimed diplomatic immunity
should have spared her the humiliation. She has been spirited back to India to
Time to throw out ‘live-in’ rule
Hong Kong employment regulations
stipulate live-in with the employer, making living out a crime. That is
designed to favor stingy families unwilling to pay extra for their domestics to
live out even though they cannot house them properly. Average flat sizes are
too small with no room for maids’ quarters. The women end up sleeping on the
The incarceration of domestics in
tiny overcrowded flats often leads to an over-arching sense of power over all
aspects of their lives. Families so inclined often take their passports away so
they cannot flee when conditions become intolerable. The girls are rendered
prisoners for pathological couples to vent their larger frustrations.
Were the domestics allowed to stay
out every night, they would at least have the company of fellow workers as
relief and help to deal with abusive families. There would be less chance of
cases like Erwiana Sulistyaningsih happening away from public view.
Any family which cannot spare maids’
quarters should be required to pay them a supplement to find alternative
accommodation. Or be disqualified from eligibility to employ a domestic. The
idea of asking domestic helpers to sleep on kitchen floors is barbaric and
unfit for a society like Hong Kong.
The ‘live-in’ rule is the first
nonsense that should be deleted from employment contracts. As things now stand,
families who do pay their hires extra to live out, expose them to arrest and
Hong Kong is a society which enjoys
First World freedoms and is fighting for those not to be stolen from them
through a pretend universal franchise formula and the lurking Article 23
Security Bill which would extend the mainland style police state. It can ill
afford to be complicit in the ecosystem of the slave trade in domestic helpers.