Monday, March 2, 2015

Landmark Hong Kong Domestic Helper Abuse Case

Hong Kong has been abuzz recently in a landmark domestic helper abuse case, where Law Wan-tung, the 44 year old employer of  Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, was sentenced and convicted to six years' imprisonment and HK$15,000 (about US$2,000) for assaulting and criminally intimidating two Indonesian domestic helpers.  Law Wan-tung was convicted after a 16 day trial.  Among her most serious charges was inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent.

The judge presiding over the case denounced the defendant's attitude and behavior.  I was disappointed by how light the sentence was -- I thought that the employer should have received a lengthier sentence or at least a heavier fine.  However, I was happy to hear of the conviction and to see some significant punishment and damages because this kind of rampant abuse has been tolerated in this city for far too long.

This is one of the ugliest facets of living in Hong Kong and it is a sad and indisputable fact that the government is a perpetrator in the sorry plight of these helpers.  The government sets up an official immigration system, granting visas to these domestic helpers coming mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, but provides no formal oversight once they arrive.  Agencies charge domestic helpers illegal and exorbitant placement fees that for all intents and purposes force these domestic helpers into the role of indentured servants.  The government turns a blind eye.

No matter how long helpers work here, they will never gain citizenship or the right of abode.

In a move that seems counter intuitive at best, the helpers must live with their employers, often in conditions of squalor, or at best in tiny rooms that barely fit a mattress.  It seems that a lot of the abuse of helpers in Hong Kong (hitting, striking, stripping the helpers of their identification or wages, using hot irons or cutters) stems from the domestic helpers being forced to live with their employers.  With no oversight from governmental authorities (or anyone, really), the helpers are locked into a one-sided power struggle where they have no rights, no voice, no power and no protection.

There is no cap on the number of hours that a helper works -- usually the understanding is that she is up before or at the same time as her employer, and does not rest until well after dinner has been prepared, the dishes washed, the clothes ironed and the various housekeeping tasks for the night completed.  This effectively means that most domestic helpers are working for far longer and for far less than should be acceptable.  Because the helper is essentially on the job at all hours, the minimum wage (HK$30 per hour) is a laughable and completely irrelevant concept.

I haven't even begun to touch on the implications of unwelcome sexual advances or abuse -- I don't know enough about the statistics there but I think I know enough about the human condition to say that surely these incidents occur and the helpers are helpless to stop it.

Of course this is not to say that all employers act this way in Hong Kong.  There are many helpers who have good jobs, like their employers and the families they work for, and choose to stay in Hong Kong year after year.  However, this is no excuse for the broken system.

And I haven't even begun to touch on the many other facets of life here that conspire to make domestic helpers second or third class citizens.  I don't know if it's the legacy of being a colony but there is so much brazen entitlement and careless racism in Hong Kong that it's hard not to feel annoyed or dirtied by it.  At least in the US we pretend we're not racist.

Michael has been volunteering a ton of time to Helpers for Domestic Helpers, advocating on behalf of domestic workers here in Hong Kong who face all kinds of unbelievable abuse.  He is such a good advocate, working tirelessly to help these domestic helpers (who are often scared out of their minds) by gathering evidence, writing and preparing necessary paperwork and last but not least, accompanying them to labor tribunals and criminal proceedings.  It is pretty exhausting work that entails a lot of travel to courts all over Hong Kong, and work that bleeds into the weekdays and weekends.  I think he really enjoys it despite the challenges because he finds it so rewarding to advocate for this population that is so woefully disenfranchised and underrepresented. 

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