The term “domestic helper” conjures images of a devoted caretaker who enlivens a family’s home. But for Indonesian domestic helpers, who have been coming to Hong Kong since the 1990s to work and send money back to their families, and comprise nearly half of Hong Kong’s 329,325 domestic workers, employment in these dream apartments has become a nightmare. Behind locked doors, extreme abuse can occur, forcing workers to surrender their privacy, health, security, and safety. Furthermore, this is a living nightmare that they cannot escape, since workers cannot leave the house or quit their job without jeopardizing their already precarious financial and legal status.
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a 23-year-old Indonesian migrant worker, became the burned and bruised face of this movement when she came forward after months of torture by her employer. She was forced to work 21 hours a day, and was constantly beaten, burned with boiling water, and locked up against her will. Her window for freedom only came because she was no longer physically able to work, and so her employer, herself a mother of two, deserted her at the airport with a return ticket to Indonesia. According to human rights experts (Source), Sulistyaningsih’s is not an isolated case; she is a part of an extensive web of human trafficking and abuse that is often very difficult to detect aside from those rare cases when workers courageously speak up.
One of the reasons so few maids report their cases is because they are bound in a legal Catch-22. In Hong Kong, foreign maids who file a pending case alleging abuse from their employer are not allowed to work for at least six to eight months. This makes it more difficult for women to pay the exorbitant fees of the Indonesian recruitment agencies that arranged their employment. Since these domestic worker agencies are the only option for foreign employment, they can afford to exploit their customers by making them pay unreasonable fees and neglecting their allegations of employer abuse. Hong Kong law caps employment agency fees at 52 USD, but according to Amnesty International, 85 percent of Indonesian helpers end up paying fees of about 2,709 USD.
These fees include “training and recruitment” fees, which can weigh in at more than half the monthly minimum wage of 517 USD for Hong Kong domestic workers, which many do not even receive. Even if Indonesian maids pay their agency fees in a timely manner, this doesn’t necessarily guarantee the agencies will honor their agreement, because they often manipulate customers’ debt to accuse them of not repaying their loans, thereby obligating maids to pay more over a longer period of time. Agencies also illegally confiscate customers’ documents: according to a survey conducted by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU), 64 percent of respondents said their employment agency had confiscated documents, such as passports, prior to their departure to Hong Kong. They could only retrieve their documents once the agency claims their customers’ debt has been fully repaid.
These maids face the onus not just of illegally inflated financial obligations from their employment agency, but also of inadequate pay from their employers. Amnesty International estimates that in Hong Kong, 40,000 Indonesian women are not receiving the legal minimum salary. Yet, given their precarious legal situation, from May 2010 to 2012, a mere 342 cases of underpayment to domestic helpers were filed in Hong Kong.
They are also further restricted by two Hong Kong laws applied specifically to foreign maids: the live-in law and the two-week rule, which can create extreme economic dependence for the maids towards their employers, who manipulate this dependence to put maids in a state of abject misery. According to the non-profit Mission for Migrant Workers, a quarter of 3,000 foreign maids surveyed about the live-in law did not feel safe in their sleeping spaces, which are usually kitchens, bathrooms, and hallways.
The two-week rule mandates that if foreign domestic helpers lose their jobs, they need to find the same form of employment within two weeks, otherwise they must depart Hong Kong, or else risk deportation or imprisonment. This reinforces the silence around the abusive culture surrounding domestic helpers.
These laws restrict maids’ ability to leave their employment situation, which leaves them vulnerable to employer abuse such as starvation. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih weighed approximately 110 lbs when arriving in Hong Kong; eight months later, she weighed half that. Other employers have taken more cruel and unusual punishments: a maid named Kartika Puspitasari was tied to a chair with no food or water and forced to wear adult diapers when her employers took their children on vacation to Thailand. Her employers also beat her with a bicycle chain and scalded her on the face and arms with a hot iron. After she escaped and reported her employers, they received a five-and-a-half year prison sentence for being guilty of eight charges, including assault and wounding with intent.
A major discrepancy exists between maids’ daily experiences and officially reported maid abuse cases. Hong Kong’s police chief Andy Tsang described maid abuse as “very rare:” an annual average of 30 to 40 reported cases of wounding and serious assault per year. However, the same live-in law survey of more than 3,000 maids states that 58 percent reported verbal abuse, 18 percent reported physical abuse and 6 percent reported sexual abuse.
It is particularly ironic that the Hong Kong and Indonesian governments have not done more to eradicate the problem of domestic helper abuse, because both have ratified several international conventions on gender and labor rights, such as the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Although such agreements dictate that participating governments are obligated to suppress and penalize all types of trafficking and forced labor, neither government has taken punitive action against these recruiting and employment firms. Amnesty International believes government inaction occurs because existing domestic laws are specifically designed to weaken domestic helpers’ rights, and therefore run at odds with international conventions.
The UN and the Indonesian government have made announcements regarding domestic worker reform, but these have not had a tangible effect. In the past two decades, several UN bodies have called for the review of repeal of the two-week rule and the live-in law in Hong Kong, to little avail. The Indonesian government did take one noticeable step in February this year in response to Erwiana’s case. In requesting that the national congress implement a gradual “overseas maid ban,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated, “The practice of Indonesian women going overseas to work as housemaids must stop immediately. We should have pride and dignity.” However, no time frame was given, and it is not clear whether the declaration was only for the cameras.
Amnesty International has called upon the Indonesian government to hold recruitment agencies more accountable to existing legislature by giving customers written contracts and clearly structured receipts for recruiting fees. Agencies should be subjected to unannounced inspections, and those that break the rules should be sanctioned. It has also requested that the Hong Kong government expand the two-week rule to include the four-to-six week time window it takes for domestic helpers to find a new visa once unemployed and to offer them alternative housing options besides the live-in law. Until more stringent regulations are established in both countries, the existing domestic helper population in Hong Kong will continue to suffer.