We must do more to protect foreign domestic helpers

Updated: 2014-01-23 07:18

By Nigel Collett(HK Edition)

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Hong Kong is a society where the rule of law is only applied to part of the population. This shortcoming makes its 320,000 mostly live-in domestic helpers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers.

Now, 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih is recovering in a hospital in Indonesia from numerous wounds allegedly inflicted by her employer. Last September, a Hong Kong couple, Tai Chi-wai and Catherine Au Yuk-shan, were jailed for assaulting their Indonesian maid, Kartika Puspitasari.

Two similar incidents arising in such a short time are not a coincidence. The cases are extreme, but the authorities should have seen something like this coming. The problem has festered away, unattended, for years. In August 2013, data gathered by the Mission for Migrant Workers found that 18 percent of the domestic helpers they surveyed had suffered physical abuse. Six percent reported sexual abuse. Some 25 percent had suffered violations to their contracts such as receiving lower pay than promised, no time off, or seizure of passports.

Victims do not come forward except in extreme situations. The possibility of deportation makes them afraid to report abuse. The two-week period allowed to domestic helpers to find new work before deportation is a huge deterrent to shifting employers. Cases take up to 15 months to reach the District Court or Labour Tribunal during which time complainants are not allowed to work.

The government has also failed to prevent abuse in the domestic helpers' home countries before the start of employment. Agencies charge domestics many months' salaries for a job, so they cannot leave employment until they have recouped the money. The stories of other malpractices are widespread and notorious, and include agencies confining women before transit and confiscating their travel documents.

We must do more to protect foreign domestic helpers

Ideas to curb these abuses have circulated for years but have been ignored. The solution should start with closer regulation and investigations of employment agencies, which needs to be done abroad and with home country government cooperation. The law restricting payment of money must be enforced in respect of home countries as well as Hong Kong. Agencies contravening regulations should be struck off the register and prosecuted.

In regard to employers of domestic helpers, the Labour Department needs to take its duties as seriously as it does with Hong Kong's factories. Procedures need to be established to check prospective employers more thoroughly and bar those who are unsuitable. An obligatory code of conduct should be issued to each employer.

Steps must be taken to give domestic helpers knowledge of their rights and access to help. They should be given a copy of a code of conduct and their rights, and know where to seek redress. A government helpline should be established. Perhaps domestic helpers should even be called in for regular interviews or inspected at their place of employment. Certainly, they should not be penalized for speaking out against their abusive employers by being deported after only two weeks without finding work, or by having to remain in Hong Kong unemployed pending resolution of court or tribunal cases. They should not have to live in with an employer who is the subject of their complaint.

At the moment, no one seems to take complaints about abuse seriously until the cases have become tragic. The Labour Department and the police need to investigate all complaints as soon as possible and thoroughly. The worst employers will not take government sanctions seriously unless they can see they will suffer if they don't. Harsh penalties, both financial and custodial, are needed as a deterrent.

The issues involved in the abuse of domestic helpers are so serious and affect so many people in Hong Kong that there is a need for a commission of inquiry to investigate the problem. The government should establish one led by a senior figure and act upon its recommendations.

Shame and blame are being apportioned to us all. The eyes of the world are on Hong Kong. The president of Indonesia has just expressed his horror at the serious abuse inflicted upon Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Are we to be thought of as a humane society where all are equally protected by the law, or one that exploits its foreign labor and allows homes to become places of torture? Our good name is at stake. And we must take robust remedial action now.

The author has worked with ethnic communities in Hong Kong since 1995 and is managing director of Gurkha International (Hong Kong) Ltd which provides employment for many former Gurkha soldiers who served in Hong Kong under British colonial rule.

(HK Edition 01/23/2014 page1)