Tortured maid, migrant workers and Hong Kong

Daisy Cl Mandap
The case of the tortured Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong is an apparent offshoot of policies that have become increasingly anti-migrant over the years

JUSTICE. Photos of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih sparked outrage in the migrant community in Hong Kong. Photo by Gina N Ordona

HONG KONG – Young Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has become the latest symbol of the sad plight of migrant workers all over the world.

Pictures of her badly disfigured face and broken, bruised body, has sparked a collective outpouring of shock and anger that has spread beyond Hong Kong, where she was reportedly abused over 8 months by her employer, a stay-at-home mother of two.

Not even the subsequent arrest of the employer, albeit on a complaint filed by one of her earlier maids, has completely appeased Sulistyaningsih’s supporters. (READ: Employer of Indonesian maid arrested)

They say authorities in Hong Kong should not treat this as just another case of an evil employer inflicting harm on her hapless domestic helper, but as an offshoot of policies that have become increasingly anti-migrant over the years.

Two such policies are often mentioned.

The first is the so-called two-week rule, which requires migrant workers to leave Hong Kong within 14 days after their contracts are terminated ahead of time. The second is the one that compels all foreign domestic workers (FDWs) to live with their employers.

Cynthia Tellez, manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, said these twin policies have caused untold suffering to many FDWs in Hong Kong.

In Sulistyaningsih’s case, she said the abuse could have been detected more easily if the helper lived outside the employer’s home. 

“If she was free to come and go, people outside would have seen the telltale marks on her body,” she said.

But she agrees that it would be difficult to find space for all the FDWs now working in Hong Kong. Immigration statistics put their total number at 320,998 by end of last year, with the majority divided nearly equally between Filipinos and Indonesians.

“All that we want is to make live-out arrangements an option so the FDWs are not left in such vulnerable positions,” said Tellez.  

Biggest bane

But it is the two-week rule, which the Mission helped fight all the way to the Privy Council way back in 1989, that she sees as the biggest bane of migrant workers.

Under this policy, a domestic worker who loses her job has only two weeks to remain in Hong Kong. If she chooses to use the time to look for another employer, she is still not allowed to stay. She has to leave the territory, and wait for the employment visa to be issued within the next six to eight weeks. That means being jobless for about 3 months, and paying hefty agency fees all over again.

“This rule has effectively silenced many migrant workers, especially those who are desperate to hold onto their jobs, no matter how bad the conditions are,” she said.

Equally forbidding for migrant workers is the one that allows employers to virtually terminate work contracts at will. Under Hong Kong laws, either worker or employer may terminate their contract for whatever reason, by simply giving a month’s notice to the other.

While this laissez-faire attitude may work well with executives and professionals who have a variety of positions to choose from and are not required to pay a fee to secure them, it has caused untold grief to many migrant workers. 

As to be expected, it is the employer who usually cuts the contract because domestic workers are often too saddled with debts to even think of this as an option. The employer also has the choice of giving a month’s salary in lieu of notice, so the worker could be sent packing immediately.

Lacking job security and fearful of being sent back home prematurely, migrant workers often find themselves having to bite the bullet just to keep their jobs.  Sulistyaningsih’s may have been an extreme case, but there are many others willing to bend over backwards just so they are not given the sack.  

Compounding the workers’ woes is the long-standing problem with unconscionable, even illegal, placement fees charged by recruitment agencies, which both the host Hong Kong government and the sending countries have abetted.

According to Sring Atin, vice chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, the going rate per contract for Indonesians who apply to work in Hong Kong is HK$15,000 (US$1,930). 

The amount, which is nearly 4 times the current minimum salary of a foreign domestic helper, has actually been reduced from HK$21,000 (US$2,700) just about a year ago, when Jakarta decided to toughen it out and demand that Hong Kong employers pay partly for the cost of deployment. 

Forced labor

Still, this has not stopped the State Department of the United States from keeping Hong Kong’s tier 2 status in its yearly Trafficking in Persons Report, largely because the high placement fee charged to Indonesian migrant workers is seen to amount to keeping them on indentured, or forced labor.

Sring Atin said that what makes the burden heavier for them is that they always have to go through an agency, whether their contracts were cut short, or lasted the full term of two years. 

Pushed to the wall by the heavy fees and the strict terms of their work contracts, it is easy to see why many Indonesian workers hesitate to speak out when they find themselves in abusive situations.

Sring Atin said their government must stop passing on its responsibility of caring for its workers abroad to the recruiters.

“What we have been fighting for is for our government to give us an option. We should not be forced to go through an agency because it is not necessary,” said Sring Atin.

This is also what their Filipino counterparts have been demanding. Up until about 10 years ago, employers and workers were allowed to transact directly with each other, and to file an employment visa application with the Hong Kong Immigration Department without having to go through a recruitment agency

This was all changed when then Labor Secretary Marianito Roque, invoking the oft-repeated excuse that workers are better protected if they went through an employment agency, took away this “direct hire” option.

As a result, everyone who files a new contract with the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) will have to course their documents through an agency, even if the parties know each other personally, and no outside help is needed for the transaction.

Filipino ‘super maids’

The situation got worse about two years afterward, when in line with then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s vision of turning all Filipino domestic workers into “super maids,” the government issued new guidelines on their deployment.

Under the so-called “Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s Guidelines on the Hiring of Filipino Household Service Workers” which took effect in December 2006, no placement fee was supposed to be collected from those deployed abroad for domestic work.

However, all those departing for the first time or did not meet the required one year overseas experience, were required to undergo training. Taking advantage of this, the recruiters themselves provided the training, and collected even more money from those bound for overseas work.

According to a survey conducted by the Mission a year after the new Guidelines took effect, the fee collected from every Hong Kong-bound Filipino domestic had risen, from around P80,000 to P120,000.

The fee, for which no receipt is ever given for obvious reason, has remained at this rate, said Tellez. 

This is despite sporadic public warnings issued by the POEA and the Department of Labor and Employment that no fee should be collected from departing household service workers or HSWs (the government’s preferred term for domestic workers).

A tacit acknowledgment that the problem has persisted could be seen in the stepped up efforts by POLO at the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong to “conciliate” disputes over fee overcharging between workers and placement agencies.

As of latest count, about 16,000 such cases have reportedly been brought to POLO for conciliation, resulting in about four months of wait for each claimant.

But, as Tellez pointed out, this is at best, a mere band-aid solution. 

“The problem should be solved at the start, when the worker is just applying to go to work in Hong Kong. There will be no need for conciliation, or pursuing a case at the POEA, if the employment agencies in the Philippines are stopped from collecting fees.”

Turning a blind eye

Hong Kong authorities have not escaped blame for the problem, either.

Under Hong Kong’s labor laws, workers could be charged a placement fee of only 10 percent of their first monthly salary. This means, they should have actually been paid their first salary before any fee is levied.

The unwritten part of this law is that it is the employer who should bear the cost of paying the recruitment firm. In the case of FDWs, the reasons are all too clear. A worker who agrees to leave her home country to work as house help abroad could only be financially hard-up. And employers who want the luxury of hiring a maid from abroad should be ready to pay the cost.

Despite the clear provision of the law, Hong Kong appears to turn a blind eye to the glaring violations committed by most employment agencies for nearly every domestic worker they recruit from overseas.

This is underscored by reports that Sulistyaningsih herself paid HK$18,000 (US$2,300) for the job that left her battered and near-dead after only eight months.

Tellez said Hong Kong need not look far to end the abuse and exploitation of FDWs.

“All it has to do is enforce its own laws. There should be a political will to protect migrants’ rights.”

Unless governments show genuine effort to implement and enact laws that protect migrant workers, Sulistyaningsih’s brave attempt to disclose her sorry ordeal would be all for naught. –

Daisy CL Mandap is a veteran journalist, having worked for various newspapers and TV stations in the Philippines and in Hong Kong. She is also a lawyer and migrants rights activist. For the past 14 years, she has worked as the editor of The SUN-HK, a bi-weekly Filipino community newspaper published in Hong Kong by her husband, Leo A. Deocadiz.





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