By: Cyril Pereira

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 resident status.

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.

Government can co-opt worker organizations into the process so individual helpers can report employer abuse and agency loan-sharking.

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 escape jail.

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 kitchen floor.

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 deportation.

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.