A modern day slavery

Written by Theodore Chow

Artwork courtesy of Anna Joung.

Artwork courtesy of Anna Joung.

The ugly truth behind foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

Imagine you are 20 years old and setting off on your first overseas adventure. Your accommodation is a homestay with a well-off middle class family. Your medical insurance will be paid by them, and they will even pay you for looking after their kids.  Sounds like a paradise, doesn’t it? When you arrive at your new home, you found that the reality is something else. Welcome to the world of Indonesian domestic helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih!

Like many of Hong Kong's 300,000 domestic helpers, Erwiana left her Indonesian home in 2013 and came to Hong Kong in the hope of making a better living for her family and herself.  What she never expected was nightmares of alleged torture from her “new family members” at her “new home”.

Here, Erwiana worked 21 hours a day and was only given a floor to sleep on. When her employers were not satisfied with her work, they would beat her and burn her with boiling water. After suffering eight months of torture, this young and gaunt woman was covered in deep bruises and lacerations: her feet swollen and black from infection; her cheeks hollowed; her eyes, soul-less. Worst of all, Erwiana’s employer left her at the airport, with just a plane ticket to go back to Indonesia and only 9 HKD in her pockets.

This is by no means an isolated incident. In the wake of Erwiana’s haunting story, many foreign domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries came forward with their own allegations. According to the Amnesty Report in 2014, two-thirds of the domestic workers in Hong Kong interviewed said they had been physically or psychologically abused. In 2015, a couple was arrested for burning their Indonesian helper with an iron, beating her with a bike chain, and scalding her on her face and arms with a hot iron. And in 2016, a HK woman was arrested for hitting and pulling the hair of her Bangladeshi maid.

The living and working conditions of many of these foreign domestic workers’ are squalid and deplorable. They are required by law to live in with their employers, but it is this very same law that leads to their exploitation. From many employers’ perspective, living in means the helpers are on duty 24 hours a day. According to a survey done by the Hong Kong Justice Centre in 2016, the average working hours of all respondents was more than 70 hours per week.

Despite contract rules promising “suitable accommodation” and “reasonable privacy”, Mission for Migrant Workers found that in 2012, 30% of helpers sleep in places you wouldn’t believe: kitchens, corridors, storage rooms or even in the bathtub! 25% stated that they feel they have no privacy, with an equal number complaining they felt “unsafe”. 20% reported that their employers had even installed CCTV in their private space. The live-in law robs helpers of privacy, personal space and rest time. It prevents workers from socialising and taking part in civic life. And it enables the cycle of abuse and exploitation to continue.

The live-in law also requires that employers provide meals for foreign domestic helpers. Yet, helpers often report not getting enough food. In the case of Erwiana, when she arrived in Hong Kong, she weighed a healthy 110 lbs. Eight months later, her weight dropped 50%, the same weight as a five-year-old. Needless to say, starvation is one of the most frequent forms of abuse.

One may ask: “Why don’t they just quit and go back to their home country?” This is easier said than done. Many foreign domestic helpers incur a huge amount of debt to come to Hong Kong in the first place. Contract fees, training fees and medical check-up fees are only a few examples of the many fees that foreign workers have to pay up front before leaving their own country. These could easily add up to half a year’s salaries, not to mention the money they need to send home every month.

Besides money, they risk deportation. If they leave their employers, they must find a new one within two weeks; otherwise, they will be deported or even imprisoned. So, the time-constraint, difficulty of the search and uncertainty deters them from acting.

When they quit, don’t forget that they will actually have no place to stay. And even when they are lucky enough to find a new employer, they have to pay another round of contract fees and other costs. The legal papers may take up to four weeks to process, certainly exceeding the two-week rule.

The foreign domestic workers are completely trapped when things go wrong. Their pursuit of justice is practically impossible. Hong Kong first opened its doors to these maids and caretakers in the mid-1970s. Almost 50 years on and the Hong Kong Government appears to have done little to adequately address the issue, typically ascribing stories of abuse as only a few bad apples.

As HongKongers, we have a choice. We can still keep our eyes wide shut, and allow more and more foreign domestic workers to turn into Erwianas, with deep bruises and lacerations, swollen feet, hollowed cheek, or we can push the government, raise awareness about such abuses and work together to turn things around. As Erwiana put it, “stop treating foreign domestic workers like slaves, start treating them as human beings.” We must wait no more!