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Thursday, February 12, 2015, 09:44

Are there other terrified Erwianas out there?

By Albert Lin

There are several aspects of the case of the cruelly mistreated Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih that demand the attention of the authorities. 

The most important point is that if other simple village girls from Indonesia, or anywhere else, claim maltreatment by their Hong Kong employers, their complaints must be thoroughly investigated.

And those inquiries must extend to the agencies in Hong Kong that started the necessary immigration and labor procedures for finding the domestic helper to get here on a two-year contract. Surely their responsibilities do not end when they receive their percentage of the placement fees. Are they not required to make checks to ensure a young woman, recently arrived in a foreign city, has been welcomed appropriately to her new home and has a proper bed to sleep in and has been allowed to retain possession of her most important possessions, such as her mobile phone and passport?

The devious behavior of Law Wan-tung, the 44-year-old housewife convicted two days ago in the district court of 18 charges of abuse against Erwiana, displayed unusual cunning in attempting to cover her tracks and conceal her cruelty. She fabricated stories that her husband had powerful friends in Indonesia and that the lives of her servant’s parents would be in danger if she lodged complaints against her maltreatment. 

Then on the day Erwiana was finally allowed to return to Indonesia, her unscrupulous employer accompanied her to the airport, escorting her to the check-in counter and seeing her accepted into the Immigration queue so she had no opportunity to lodge a complaint to anybody in authority before being whisked away. 

Over 15 days we have been learning details of the case that became ever more horrifying. 

Judge Amanda Woodcock found herself compelled to believe the main body of Erwiana’s evidence, although on points of law she reduced the severity of one charge and dismissed another.

It was sickening to learn that on a cold winter’s day the wicked employer stripped Erwiana of her clothes, splashed cold water on her and then turned on a fan to face her body. What was the woman thinking — was it her intention that girl catch pneumonia?

And, on another occasion, why did she thrust the metal tube of a vacuum cleaner into the girl’s mouth, viciously twisting it around and damaging Erwiana’s teeth and lips?

Are there other vile housewives in the community brutally administering cruelty to their battered domestics and slyly hiding their blatant criminality, as Law did?  It is certainly to be hoped that there are not, nevertheless the concern is that it could be possible.  As a rule of thumb, when a housewife-employer demands a maid’s passport virtually at the front door — falsely claiming that “This is the law in Hong Kong, you must give it to me!” — the poor maid in question is about to begin a life of hell.

To the shame of Hong Kong, Erwiana’s case is by no means the first time one of our housewives has inflicted both physical and mental cruelty on a domestic servant. But — to our knowledge — it seems to have been the worst to be fully revealed in court, so far.

Hong Kong is now the second home of about 320,000 domestic helpers from neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. They have played an important part in the success story of Hong Kong, thanks to their hard work, couples with children have both been able to take jobs, safe in the knowledge that their children would be picked up from school by family maids and safely accompanied home. Some found themselves burdened with additional duties caring for aged parents, but generally speaking these servants were welcomed by caring employers, and experienced reasonably happy lives.

Best of all, they were able to send monthly remittances to their home countries so their children could benefit from a better education, and their families could adopt more comfortable lifestyles.

Once Erwiana recovers from her nightmare experiences in Hong Kong she is hoping to go to university in Indonesia and get an education that will ensure she never has to work as a domestic helper again, Hong Kong wishes her good luck.

If there are lessons to be learnt from Erwiana’s suffering, it is that no one should keep quiet when being victimized by another person as Hong Kong’s rule of law covers everyone regardless of their station in life. It should also bring to our attention the need to review the rule requiring domestic maids to live with employer families, as it evidently lends itself to excessively long working hours and deprives the maid of much needed private time for recharge.

The author is a former journalist and civil servant.

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