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Friday, February 21, 2014, 10:49
Living dangerously in Hong Kong
By Timothy Chui

Living dangerously in Hong Kong

Living dangerously in Hong Kong

It is hard to know how many of the nearly 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong lead lives of living Hell, similar to the trials of an Indonesian woman so badly beaten by her employer she needed help to board an airplane to take her home. But as Timothy Chui reports, advocates for foreign domestic helpers say the case is not isolated. 

Eleanor, a 24-year-old Filipino domestic helper, didn’t know signing on to work for families in Hong Kong would turn her life into a living Hell.

“The first employer was terrible,” she told China Daily. “The second was the worst. I came to Hong Kong to make money so my boys could have a better future,” she added.

Eleanor (not her real name) stands wrapped up against the cold outside Jardine House on a windy, overcast morning. She is surrounded by her friends — also Hong Kong domestic workers. It’s Sunday. Most domestic helpers have the day off. It’s a potluck of peers, who gather once a week to share gossip and emotional support.

Friends shake their heads as Eleanor recounts how the children of her first employer spat in her food. “They seemed incapable of asking me to do things nicely,” she says. She says her employers kept her on the go for 18 hours a day.

Helpers have all heard these stories before. Things are so bad, most who are fortunate enough to work for employers with any human respect shy from boasting about it.

Eleanor took the abuse for a year — paid off what she owed the agency that found her the job — and quit, hoping to find decent people to work for.

“Little did I know things were only going to get worse,” she said.

Blank mind

In her second job, she was responsible for a seven-year-old boy. She’d take him to school in the mornings — then spend the day housecleaning and preparing meals.

After a week, the boy’s father brushed the back of his hand over her breasts in a feeble effort to make the gesture appear unintentional. Before long the man would fondle her, out of sight of the CCTV cameras, she said.

One summer morning in 2012, the man came and sat with her. “I was looking at photos of my boys. I froze. My mind went blank.” The man began nuzzling the nape of her neck. When the rest of the family had left for the day, he raped her for the first time. “He was on top of me when I tried to get up. It was panic. He said I was rude when he finished.”

She described what came next. Quickly, she washed, her mind racing, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Her instinct was to flee, but she had a contract. She owed the employment agency five months’ wages. The agency had her passport. She owed money to relatives who had helped to put up the money to send her abroad so that she could send back money to help support them.

“I thought of telling his wife, but I thought she wouldn’t believe me, or worse, blame me for it. Who do you think she would side with? The father of her children, the man she married, or me?” she said.

Eleanor had been through tough times before, but never like this. She kept her job. She put up with the sexual innuendoes and the molestation of her employer. She needed the money she earned for her kids.

“At the time I was willing to suffer silently. Many workers tell themselves no matter how bad it is, you can change employers if you finish your contract. You just need to finish your contract,” she said.

Three months later, she was raped again. She stole away in the middle of the night from her employers’ home in Kowloon and wandered the city in despair.

As the morning commute began, she found herself sitting in an alley in Central, disoriented and dismayed. By chance, a friend spotted her and guided her to the Mission for Migrant Workers.

Her assailant was arrested, charged, but in the end, acquitted by a seven-person Hong Kong jury. Eleanor could not keep up with the Cantonese at the trial. She wonders to this day whether the jury was truly impartial.

“In the end I needed to run away because it was too much for me to bear, but I’m certain there are many helpers in Hong Kong tolerating all sorts of abuses, because they need the money they make here to send home.”

Eleanor has a new and humane employer. Her boys back home have all their school books. They have bicycles and are the envy of their neighborhood friends.

Disputes between employers and helpers frequently appear in local headlines. The plight of Eleanor, and potentially thousands of others, was underscored by images in local media, showing a badly beaten Erwiana Sulistyamingsih, a former foreign domestic worker allegedly beaten by her Hong Kong employer.

The employer awaits a March trial date. The woman was arrested on charges of assault and criminal intimidation after being halted while trying to board a flight to Bangkok. Erwiana alleges an eight-month ordeal of physical abuse involving implements of all sorts, denied medical treatment, rest and proper living conditions. Her attempts to seek help were met with death threats against her family back home in Indonesia.

Worst case

Mission for Migrant Workers Honorary Secretary Reverend Dwight Quijano Dela Torre said it was the worst case he has seen in more than 20 years with the mission.

“I hope that justice is done, and that [Erwiana] will get what she is owed. I hope the full weight of the law is applied,” he said.

Dela Torre hopes the case will be a turning point leading to greater protection for FDW in Hong Kong and that future abuses will be reported to the authorities.

Currently, “its such a hassle for (foreign domestic workers). They’d rather go on earning money for their families,” he said.

Erwiana’s case, while exceptional in its brutality, is not isolated, Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Workers program coordinator Aaron Ceradoy told China Daily.

Ceradoy’s colleague, Esther Bangcawayan, estimates less than 20 percent of abuse cases are reported.

“Helpers rarely report rape incidents because of the stigma attached to a victim. They fear the reaction of the families in their home countries and they don’t want to have their cases publicized,” Ceradoy said.

Hong Kong’s judicial system was not at fault, but the biggest impediment to bringing cases to courts were policies, such as the two-week rule, which hamstrung efforts to seek justice.

All FDW are subject to the two-week rule. Once their employment contract has been terminated, they’ve two weeks to secure another job or they must return to their home countries.

Visa extensions are allowed if there is a criminal complaint lodged, but workers will still be out of work and employers can hardly be faulted for not wanting to pick up someone in the midst of a court battle with a former employer.

“Many of these cases take months to make it to court and the prospect of not having a job for a long period of time is daunting, since they are here to support their families in the first place. Many are already mothers. They are also under many debt obligations which they incur when they come to work here,” he said.

It’s a sad fact that many workers endure these abuses, because they need this job,” he said.

Contact the writer at tim@chinadailyhk.com

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