Foreign Housekeepers in Hong Kong

By Huiyu Yin

If you are visiting Hong Kong for the first time, get prepared for this scene: foreign housekeepers in Hong Kong, known as “helpers” or “maids,” crowd the city’s parks, underpasses, overpasses and any public area every Sunday, which is their only day off. All the women dress up, bring food to share, play music, sing and dance. Despite sitting on cardboards and newspapers, they are truly celebrating a holiday of their own.

Foreign domestic workers make up around 3 percent of Hong Kong’s population. In 2013, there were about 320,000 maids in Hong Kong, of which 50 per cent were from the Philippines and 47 per cent from Indonesia. Incidents of abuse and torture at the hands of their employers are frequently reported and revealed in high-profile court proceedings. However, many more are hidden from public view. According to a survey conducted by Mission for Migrant Workers, a HK-based charity, in April 2013, of more than 3,00 maids, 58% reported suffering verbal abuse, 18% physical abuse and 6% sexual abuse.

The case of Erwinana Sulistyaningsih hit all the major headlines earlier this year. Ms. Sulistyaningsih reported that she suffered months of abuse from a 44-year-old employer, Law Wan-tung, in Hong Kong: both her eyes were bruised from being struck repeatedly, and her hands and feet were charred from suspected chemical burns. The Hong Kong police arrested Ms. Law following a separate complaint by another maid who had also been employed by Ms. Law. Ms. Law is facing charges of abuse.

The city’s law is making conditions worse for the maids. The law requires that maids must reside with their employers. Their wages are subject to a statutory minimum of HK$4,010 per month based on a 48-hour workweek, whereas it is between HK$5,760 and $6.240 a month for everyone else. The minimum wage law has no limit on working hours. According to a report by Amnesty International, a third of maids surveyed said they worked 17 hours a day. Most only take one day off a week, which means many are working over 100 hours a week, making them some of the most overworked in the world. “Objectively speaking, domestic workers are probably the most undervalued workers to work in Hong Kong,” says human rights lawyer Rob Connelly.

Activists, charities and academics claim that Indonesians, as a group, are especially vulnerable. Amnesty International wrote in a November report that thousands of Indonesian women trafficked to Hong Kong faced "slavery-like" conditions. Hans Ladegaard, a professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, has been conducting research into abuse of maids in Hong Kong since 2008. He believes that Indonesian workers are at more risk compared to their Filipino counterparts because they tend to be younger, less educated and speak less fluent English. He says that some families prefer to hire Indonesian maids because they accept lower salaries than Filipinos and are marketed by employment agencies as being more “obedient.” “In my mind, what the agencies told the employers is basically permission to exploit and abuse them,” he says.

Employment agencies in Hong Kong and Indonesia not only failed to protect their clients, but in some cases, deceive them outright as well. Rohyati, a 26-year-old Indonesian woman, travelled to Hong Kong to work as a maid. Her salary for the first job was HK$ 3,920, less than the legal minimum. In the first six months, she had to pay HK$2,543 to a Hong Kong-based employment agency every month for her training and recruitment. When her employer’s mother slapped her for the first time, Rohyati said that she spoke to the agency right away to ask for advice. The agency told her to be patient and wait for six months, until after she paid back all the fees, before she could leave. Over the next two months, she continued to report the physical abuse to the agency, but to no avail.

The good news is that Erwinana Sulistyaningsih’s case has drawn attention of activists, charities, and the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong Labor Department has ramped up its publicity efforts in areas where Indonesian domestic workers gather on weekends to inform them of their rights. However, more needs to be done to react to an increasing number of human rights abuses.