The Plight of Hong Kong’s Domestic Workers

Early in the morning on a street in Hong Kong’s Central district, workers rushing to offices, hands occupied with briefcases and Starbucks, pay little attention to a woman in dark colors holding a package.

“I am waiting for my friend from the Philippines to give her something to carry to the Philippines to give my son, ‘’ said the woman, who identified herself only as Angela. The 47-year-old Filipina has worked in the city for 12 years for different employers – none, she says, as bad as her current one.

The woman of the house, she says, is pregnant and does nothing. Angela awakens at 6 am to clean the toilets, the floors and the windows. At 8 am she readies the son for his third year of school. A whole load of cooking, cleaning and caring for the son are on Angela’s shoulders. Her workday ends at 1 am after having given the housewife a to-do list for the following day’s tasks. She does these services on a half-empty stomach.

“She has six CCTV cameras in the house, in the kitchen, in the corridor, in my room. I am not comfortable with it. For example, when you eat in the kitchen because you are hungry they come and say ‘Why, why you are eating this meal?’ That bread is for me not for her. They do not give me enough food.”

She is deprived of a free day as well. On Sunday, she is free from noon until 5 pm. However, she does not speak up about the situation. ‘’I do not want to argue because I do not want to have a bother in Hong Kong. I still keep quiet,” she said.

Angela is hardly alone. While Hong Kong is famous as a cutting-edge business center with prosperous people, fancy cars and skyscrapers, it is also a dream destination for thousands of other Asians to carve out a different kind of career.

“There is a misconception in the social media because some (domestic helpers) wear beautiful clothes and go to many places. So we think ‘Wow, Hong Kong is a beautiful place and relaxing.’ But in fact, it is very different and difficult,” said Maria, another Filipina domestic. She is one of 1,049 domestic workers surveyed by the Justice Center Hong Kong, a nonprofit human rights organization, which has outlined in exhaustive detail the tribulations a disturbing number of domestic workers face.

The center’s newly-released report called, “Coming Clean: The prevalence of forced labor and human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor amongst migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong,” catalogues the violations of domestic workers’ rights.

Some 336,000 Hong Kong employees are registered domestic workers. The vast majority of them are women exclusively from Asian countries, the preponderance of them from Indonesia and the Philippines. According to the survey, every sixth domestic worker—56,000 of them – has been exploited.

The Hong Kong government cites regulations that include a compulsory day off a week, a fixed monthly wage and minimum food allowance. According to the rule, the day off may be flexible but it is mandatory to grant the worker 24 hours’ rest each week without disturbance. They also are expected to have a week’s paid annual leave. The allowable wage is HK$4,210 monthly. Employers should provide the worker either with food or an additional allowance of at least HK$995 per month. Many low paid workers from other countries, mainly Asian, are attracted by these rules and leave their countries for what they expect is a better life.

The Justice Center’s report, however, says these regulations are fanciful. There is no follow-up inspection to make sure the employers hew to the rules. The activities of agencies recruiting domestic workers for Hong Kong are not under control as well, leading to widespread fraud and abuse. There is no system to check whether those organisations have upheld their promises.

“The agency will, of course, say good things. Most of them are lies. The contract said ‘you will have your own room.’ The reality is sleeping in the kitchen or living room. [I have been] sleeping in the living room for four years,” said Rose, one of the surveyed domestic workers.

Two years ago the case of a 21-year-old Indonesian woman named Erwiana Sulistyaningsih delivered in stark detail the torture some domestic workers face. According to court records, she had to work 20 hours a day, did not have access to any means of communication and was locked in the apartment. She was physically beaten on a regular basis, was deprived of using the toilet and forced to wear diapers.

After six months of that, the employer, Law Wan-Tung, sent her back to Indonesia with HK$60,the only money she received during her ordeal. Another domestic worker who met Erwiana in the airport took pictures of her wounds and published them on the internet. The pictures and story went viral.

Ultimately Law was sentenced six years in prison and was fined HK$15,000. Time magazine included Erwian's name in the list of 100 Most Powerful People in 2014 calling her ''the migrant worker who fought back.''

Notwithstanding, her case is unique. Many women keep silent, fearing loss of their jobs and being unable to transfer money home or terminate their searches of a better future. Domestic workers are required to leave Hong Kong within 14 days of the completion of their contract. This short period, critics say, hinders a worker to find another job. Employers, understanding this fact take advantage of the situation. The government replies that these two weeks are designed for packing up rather than finding another job, saying the rule is designed to prevent job-hopping

The “Live-in” requirement means that domestic workers must work and live in the employer's apartment. The government's position is that this requirement is supposed to rule out the possibility to take up other part-time job competing with the domestic workforce.

And although expatriates working in Hong Kong for seven years can claim permanent residency, the rule doesn’t apply to domestic workers. The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal three years ago stated that domestic workers are deprived of this opportunity ''due to the nature of (their) contracts and visa arrangements.''

''Hong Kong must come clean; the government can no longer afford to sweep these problems under the carpet,'' the closing note of the report read.

Physical abuse is not the only indicator of the violation of the workers' rights. Many are overworked and/or underpaid. A third of women surveyed said they were deprived of their 24 hours rest at least part of the time. Almost 40 percent do not have their own room, sharing with a child or sleeping either in the kitchen or in the living room. They work on average 71 hours in six days.

In 2012, the Mission for Migrant Workers released a report revealing that more than half of 3,000 surveyed domestic workers experienced verbal abuse, 18 percent physical and 6 percent sexual abuses. Two years later, in 2014, the Equal Opportunities Commission reported that 6.5 percent of 60 questioned workers were sexually harassed or discriminated.

According to the report, Hong Kong's monthly average salary is around HK$20,000. In comparison, the domestic workers' salary is as less as five times. The salary in Hong Kong overall was increased by 15 percent since 1998 to 2012, but for the domestic workers' budget only with 3.9 percent (HK$150).

Some 41 percent of 53 million worldwide domestic workers reside in Asia. Hong Kong is well known for its high number of domestic workers for its population, with the first ones from Mainland China. During the 1970s, other nationalities were allowed in. The early birds were Filipinas and Indonesians, the scope of countries producing workers for Hong Kong widening year-by-year.

Many do their best to stay longer despite the difficulties, trying to win the kindness of the employers. Angela does the same. The family loves her, she says, but treats hers badly. However, she is fed up and has made a decision; if they do not change the attitude towards her she will go back to the Philippines.

''I will go and do a business—selling rice or something,'' she said, unlocking her cell phone to see her son's face on the screen.