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Forced labour common among Hong Kong's domestic helpers, study finds
The Guardian (Australia) - March 14, 2016
"The space is so small I cannot lie straight. I have no privacy and am not allowed to use my phone to contact my family," says the single mother of two, who is in her late 20s and from a rural area in the Philippines.
Her day begins at 6am and ends at midnight. "I work a six-day week. I am meant to get 24 hours off once a week but I am given chores in the morning and after my 7.30pm curfew. I am always hungry. I am sometimes fed leftovers, sometimes nothing. The man shouts at me and calls me 'Idiot' and 'Moron'. Once, I made a mistake and he grabbed my head and shoved me," she says.
"I am scared and cry every night. I can't leave because I owe recruitment fees to my agency, and my family needs money."
One in six migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is in forced labour, working an average of 71 hours a week, some for more than 15 hours a day, according to research by Justice Centre Hong Kong.
The study, which surveyed 1,000 workers from eight countries in a dozen areas of the city, used the International Labour Organisation's indicators for forced labour adapted to the Hong Kong context. It found that 13% of those surveyed worked 15 or more hours a day and 7.7% were woken up in the night to work. Even on rest days, 35% were made to do some work and 4.5% were not given a rest day. Of those in forced labour, 14% had been trafficked and only 5.4% showed no signs of labour exploitation.
"Until now, the Hong Kong government's response to forced labour and human trafficking has largely been one of denial despite mounting international concern," says Victoria Wisniewski Otero, who co-authored the report.
"The government considers cases of abuse as rare incidences, but we have clear evidence that labour exploitation is prevalent and, in some cases, one in six respondents in fact, bear all the markers of forced labour."
Hong Kong has one of the highest densities of migrant domestic workers in the world – 336,600, mainly women, make up 4.4% of the city's population and 10% of the workforce, providing cheap care for children and elderly people. Most of these workers come from the Philippines and Indonesia.
In its latest Trafficking in Persons report, the US State Department said Hong Kong was a "destination, transit and source territory for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour" (pdf). The government rejected these findings.
Wisniewski Otero says the authorities should bring in legislation to deal with the issue and incorporate legal definitions of forced labour and human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour into domestic law.
"Justice Centre calls on the government to prohibit human trafficking in all its forms, including for forced labour. The government must act now. It can no longer afford to sweep these problems under the carpet."
Two cases of abuse have turned the international spotlight on Hong Kong. Last year, a Hong Kong woman, Law Wan-tung, who abused Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, then 21, from Indonesia, was sentenced to six years in jail after her conviction for assault, grievous bodily harm, criminal intimidation, and failure to pay wages and give rest days.
Another Indonesian woman, Kartika Puspitasari, was assaulted, tortured, starved and imprisoned in her employer's home over two years from 2010. The 27-year-old escaped and her employers were sentenced to jail terms in 2013.
The government says it investigates reports of abuse and points to the convictions as proof of its commitment to foreign domestic workers, or "helpers" as it calls them.
"Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world which grants statutory labour rights and benefits, such as a weekly rest day, statutory holidays, paid annual leave etc to migrant workers, same as those enjoyed by local workers," said Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, secretary for labour and welfare, before the release of Justice Centre's report.
"Helpers are offered additional protection through the government-prescribed standard employment contract under which they can enjoy benefits like free food, free accommodation, free medical treatment and free passage to and from their home countries."
The minimum wage for migrant domestic workers is 4,210 Hong Kong dollars a month (£382). There are no maximum hours. Justice Centre found that, due to long working hours, the average hourly payis HK$14.32; the legal minimum for other workers is HK$32.50.
Employment agencies can charge migrant workers 10% of their first month's salary as a placement fee. But NGOs have found that illegal and excessive fee-charging is rife.
"Our study found that the main driver predicting whether someone would be in forced labour hinged on whether they had excessive recruitment debt," says Wisniewski Otero. "Those with debt – equal to or in excess of 30% of their annual income – were six times more likely to be in forced labour. Clearly agencies are profiteering and regulation needs to be ramped up."
Eni Lestari, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, says it is common for migrants to work for six months or more in debt bondage, paying off up to HK$21,000.
Siti, an Indonesian mother in her mid-30s, started work in the city last year but her employer pushed her into the stove and she burnt her arm.
"Though my contract was to work in one house, I had to look after three premises. I worked from 6.30am-3am and slept on the sitting-room floor. I had no day off in six months. I wasn't given enough food, wasn't allowed to practice my religion and wasn't allowed out of the house by myself," she says.
"The recruitment agency took away my passport and took two-thirds of my salary for six months because of debt. I rang my agency to ask them to help me escape. First they told me I needed to be humble and to pray, then they said they would only help me if I paid another HK$3,000 but I had no money."
"[Hong Kong's rule of law], which is meant to be a shield for the workers, has been turned into a sword against them," says Melville Boase, a lawyer who has represented domestic workers including Sulistyaningsih.
"The classic example is that their contract specifies the kind of work they do and is meant to protect them. But if they are forced to do other work and they complain, they are prosecuted for breach of condition of stay and in many cases are sent to prison."
The "live-in requirement" for migrant domestic workers makes them vulnerable to abuse, including sexual attacks. The "two-week rule", under which migrants must leave Hong Kong within 14 days of the end of their contract, means they have little time to pursue justice if they have been wronged. They are also not allowed to work once terminated so they have no way of earning a living if they want to pursue a legal claim.
The UN committee against torture, which issued its third report for Hong Kong in December (pdf), is one of many human rights groups calling on the immigration department to scrap these policies.
NB: Some names have been changed to protect identities