Maid abuse case highlights plight of migrant workers

Maid abuse case highlights plight of migrant workers

HONG KONG - Foreign maids in Hong Kong are guaranteed wages and benefits rare elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, but the recent ordeal of an Indonesian domestic helper has highlighted the abuses that still go on behind closed doors.

A six-week trial that saw a Hong Kong woman convicted of beating and starving Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has shone a spotlight on the financial hub's 300,000 maids, with campaigners hoping the ruling will convince more to speak out about abuse.

And while some argue the city is far ahead of much of Asia and the Middle East in its treatment of migrant maids, critics say lax enforcement and poor support mean domestic helpers are either afraid to speak out or unaware of where to look for help.

"I don't think there is any reason to rejoice," Hans Ladegaard, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, told AFP.

"Erwiana may have won the court case, (but) her case is unfortunately far from exceptional," said Ladegaard, who has been collecting cases of domestic worker abuse since 2008 as part of an academic project.

A Hong Kong judge on Tuesday found Sulistyaningsih's employer Law Wan-tung guilty of 18 charges of physical abuse and a failure to pay wages, saying the Indonesian was effectively kept prisoner.

Sulistyaningsih told the court in vivid detail how she was "tortured", starved, beaten and humiliated by her former employer.

She later told journalists she was happy with the ruling, but voiced hope for reforms in Hong Kong, calling on employers to treat "migrant domestic workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves".

'Like slaves'

In a 2013 survey of more than 3,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, nearly a fifth said they had experienced some form of physical abuse, while 58 per cent said they had endured verbal abuse. Six per cent said they had suffered sexual abuse.

The same year, Amnesty International condemned the "slavery-like" conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian women who work as domestic staff in Hong Kong and accused authorities of "inexcusable" inaction.

Local campaigning group HK Helpers has identified three issues in particular need of reform: the enforcement of maximum working hours, stopping illegal agency fees, and ending rules that gives domestic workers only two weeks to find new employers if they quit.

But others say that Hong Kong does more than most to protect its domestic workers, with laws requiring employers to provide a minimum wage, days off, and medical insurance - which are rare in other countries.

The International Labour Organisation said in 2013 that just three per cent of Asian countries awarded migrant maids weekly days off, and no Middle Eastern countries did.

Only 12 per cent of Asia, meanwhile, guarantees minimum wages for domestic helpers, a figure that stands at just one per cent in the Middle East, according to the ILO.

Under the controversial "kafala" (sponsorship) system that several Arab states enforce, migrant domestic workers are left completely at the mercy of their employers.

It restricts workers from moving to a new job before their contracts end unless they obtain their employer's consent, trapping many in abusive situations.

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