Global Courant 2023-05-01 05:37:22
On the same day that Sukhi* landed in Hong Kong in April 2018 after a long flight from India, she had to go to work.
Thus began years of trauma trapped in slave-like conditions.
“I thought I would have a better life,” Sukhi told Al Jazeera, recalling how her male employer confiscated her phone and passport. She was only 21 years old and it was her first time traveling abroad.
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Later, accompanied by her sister, she had to work 16 hours a day, cleaning, cooking and taking care of the man’s children – and serving customers in his beauty salon. “But there were no happy moments.”
For decades, Hong Kong’s 340,000 migrant domestic workers have faced mistreatment and exploitation despite the economic and social benefits they bring to the Chinese-ruled area. Lawyers, campaigners and workers blame a combination of low wages, weak labor laws, lax prosecution of employer misconduct and punitive government policies.
But now the women are fighting back – in the courts and on the streets.
In January, a Hong Kong labor tribunal ruled in favor of Sukhi and her younger sister in a case against their former employer, which now faces hefty fines and possible jail time.
He was found to have illegally forced them to have a second job at his beauty salon and paid them an illegal monthly salary of just 1,500 Hong Kong dollars ($191) during the pandemic. The sisters were also regularly mistreated and humiliated. Once, after the employer found leftover food on a plate that Sukhi had washed, they rubbed it on her face as punishment.
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“I feel like my life is just beginning,” said Sukhi, who decided to confront the employer last May after being put in touch with HELP for Domestic Workers, a local non-profit organization that provides shelter, basic supplies and legal advice to the women.
‘Lifeline to families’
Sukhi and her sister’s experience is not an isolated one.
Research in 2016, the Justice Center, a local non-profit organization, found that 18 percent of domestic workers were physically assaulted, 66 percent were victims of exploitation, and 1 in 6 were in a forced labor situation. The more than 1,000 household helpers surveyed each worked an average of 71.4 hours per week. In 2020, while the city was under strict lockdown, the number of cases of sexual abuse and harassment is said to have tripled.
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The consequences of that abuse continue to surface.
In February, a court ordered a Hong Kong couple – already sentenced to prison – to pay HK$868,600 ($110,652) to their former housekeeper, an Indonesian woman, after pleading guilty to years of abuse.
The court heard how they burned her with a hot iron, beat her with a bicycle chain and once tied her to a chair without food while they were on vacation in Thailand.
But it’s not just the abuse or risk of slavery; the women – mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines – also face institutional obstacles, according to critics, that make it difficult for them to escape even dangerous situations.
Under Hong Kong’s so-called “two weeks” rule, domestic workers must leave the city within two weeks if they lose their job, making them less likely to leave employers for fear of being evicted. The “live-in” laws require them to live in their employer’s home, increasing the likelihood of overtime work and often forcing them to sleep in a small space at best, or on the floor at worst.
They get only one day off per week and, unlike other migrant workers, will never receive social benefits or the right to citizenship.
“Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are seen more as tools than people,” said Germain Haumont, a lawyer who has studied the industry. “The second-class status they are given is essentially discriminatory. This status is enshrined in Hong Kong in both labor law and immigration law.”
Migrant domestic workers, almost exclusively women, were first encouraged to move to Hong Kong in the 1970s to meet the needs of a city that was rapidly growing from an industrial manufacturing center to a global financial center.
Nearly one in ten Hong Kong workers represent many families who depend on them to run the house and care for their children and elderly parents. According to a report by local NGO Enrich, 110,000 mothers in Hong Kong have been able to return to work thanks to the help of domestic workers.
They are estimated to have contributed $12.6 billion to Hong Kong’s economy in 2018, representing 3.6 percent of the city’s gross domestic production (GDP).
Women campaigning in March for better working conditions, including the right to change the family they work for (File: Louise Delmotte/AP Photo)
Many also send a large portion of their wages to their own families.
“These women are lifebloods for families back home,” said Avril Rodrigues of HELP for Domestic Workers. “They make a strong contribution to Hong Kong’s economy. They are all here on legal visas. But they have to deal with toxic working conditions.”
A damnation report published in March by the United Nations calling on Hong Kong to amend the “two weeks” and “live-in” rules and apply the statutory minimum wage to migrant domestic workers “with a view to enabling (them) to fully enjoy their rights”. It also expressed concern about “exploitative practices by employers” and said complaints are “not adequately followed up by labor inspection bodies”.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong Labor Department said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the government attaches “great importance to protecting the rights of foreign domestic workers” and that “we will not tolerate exploitation or abuse”.
They added that domestic workers enjoy “the same labor rights and protections as local workers under Hong Kong’s laws”, including food, accommodation, medical treatment and a minimum allowable wage of HK$4,730 ($603) per month.
But that’s less than a quarter of the average monthly wage in Hong Kong, which was $19,100 ($2,433) last year, and the equivalent of less than half the minimum wage, which is $40 ($5.10) per month. hours for everyone except domestic workers.
For Shiela Tebia Bonifacio, president of Gabriela Hong Kong, an alliance of Filipino women migrant organizations, that’s not enough.
“We have a slave wage,” she said.
Bonifacio, who arrived in Hong Kong from the Philippines in 2007 as a 23-year-old, helps lead public information campaigns with workers she says often know little about their rights. The group provides counseling for those who are “overworked and underappreciated,” blood pressure checks to monitor stress, and volleyball games to build friendships.
Bonifacio knows only too well the inhumane ways in which workers can be treated. She was forced to sleep on the floor and her “non-stop” days started at 5am. Even worse, she was sexually assaulted by the eldest son of the first family she worked for.
“I was scared and humiliated by the family,” she told Al Jazeera.
Her experiences and those of colleagues have fueled her call for change.
In 2012, their campaigns helped secure a ban on domestic workers forced to clean windows after several women fell to their deaths. Six years later, domestic workers were given the right to attend labor tribunals remotely, meaning they could file claims even if they had left town.
“Without our movement, there would be no change for us migrant workers,” said Bonifacio.
But there is still a long way to go. Bonifacio says exploitation is still widespread and there are other problems, such as the requirement that employment be processed by employment agencies, which demand high compensation from workers, and in some cases debt bondage.
Forging a better future
In 2021, the spread of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong resulted in domestic workers being available 24 hours a day, with 40,000 reportedly not getting a single day off.
Some were fired — and made homeless — by their employers when they tested positive for the virus. Due to their non-permanent status, the women were also excluded from support vouchers given to millions of city residents.
“Because of the lockdown, they couldn’t have a single rest day for eight or nine months. It has led to a mental health crisis,” said Rodrigues. “And some had to sleep in parks, under bridges, forced into homelessness.”
More recently, controversy has arisen over the government’s crackdown on so-called “job hopping”, in which domestic workers prematurely terminate their two-year contracts to find another employer.
An eight-week public consultation was launched in March on proposals to allow a change of employer before the end of the contract only in “exceptional circumstances”, such as an employer leaving Hong Kong or dying.
No other worker is bound by such rules, and domestic workers claim it is their right to change jobs.
“When did changing employers become a crime?” Bonifacio said. “This will force women to stay with abusive employers.”
The debate over domestic worker rights is only likely to intensify as Hong Kong society ages and families increasingly rely on live-in carers.
The government estimates that the city will need 600,000 migrant domestic helpers by 2047.
These women are increasingly determined that their future should not be the same as the past.
“What I went through, I don’t want the same thing to happen to other girls,” said Hardeep, a 28-year-old worker who ran away from an employer who beat her last year.
She has now found a new, caring family and dreams of opening a beauty salon one day. “Life is so much better,” she said. “If you stand for yourself, God will help you.”
*Some names have been changed to protect identities.