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Domestic carers in Hong Kong: where hundreds of thousands of women have to live with their boss

He knew that foreign domestic workers often earned much higher wages than he could find at home. Before she arrived, an employment agency found her a job as an aide – a job that involves being a housekeeper, a personal cook, a nanny and a caretaker.

And like most Hong Kong helpers, she was legally required to live in her employer’s home.

What he said was followed by six months of physical and emotional abuse so excruciating that he broke his contract and Escaped. “My whole body died for him,” says Marta, now 37, who requested a pseudonym to protect her identity. “It’s the darkness of my life.”

The mistreatment described by Marta is not uncommon in Hong Kong, home to over 390,000 helpers who come largely from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Making up nearly 10% of the city’s workforce, these women – only about 1% of the helpers are men – are an integral part of Hong Kong’s economy and daily life. Yet they are also one of the most vulnerable communities in the city.

Domestic workers are the economic backbone of HK, but some of its most treated women
In a survey of 5,023 helpers last year, 15% of respondents said they had been physically mistreated at work. And 2% reported having been sexually assaulted or harassed, according to the sponsoring organization Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW), which conducted the survey.

Problems with poor working and living conditions are common complaints.

Activists say that the rule of life, which is exempted from government only in exceptional circumstances, forces women to reside with potentially abusive employers with few ways to help.

After Marta left her first employer, she said she faced periods of homelessness and unemployment – at one point sleeping on a mattress on the floor of her church – before finding a new job.

Now, on his feet again, he is pushing to change the live-in rule – bringing it to court.

A quick story

Foreign domestic workers began arriving in Hong Kong in the 1970s, a decade of rapid economic development that saw the city transform from a poor manufacturing center into a financial capital with modern urban infrastructure.

Local women wanted to join the workforce and open work visas to helpers “relieved housewives of household chores to take a job,” according to a 2005 report by Hong Kong security office.

Assistants are generally charged with cleaning their employers’ homes, buying groceries, cooking meals, taking care of children and the elderly, and a host of other essential activities.

For several decades, some helpers lived with their employers, while others opted to live – but in 2003 the authorities made the rule of life mandatory. They argued that this would “better reflect the political intention” behind the inclusion of foreign workers: filling a shortage of full-time and living domestic services, particularly crucial for those who need 24-hour assistance such as people with disabilities or elderly residents living alone.

The government said there is no such shortage of part-time or non-resident services, so allowing foreign workers to survive would put them in direct competition with local workers.

The rule dictated that employers provide “adequate housing” with “reasonable privacy”, but offered few other guidelines. Employers are required to communicate the size of their apartment and the type of accommodation for the helper – for example, a private room or a partition area of ​​the house – on the employment contract, which is then signed by the helper.

But there are no standards or requirements as to how much minimum space should be given to helpers, and the vague wording of “suitable” means that some are made to sleep in poor conditions, such as in the bathroom or on the floor.

If an aide breaks the rule by living, she faces a ban on working in Hong Kong – and the employer may be banned from hiring helpers. They could also be prosecuted for providing false information, punishable by imprisonment or a fine.

No privacy, no rest

Since its introduction, the rule has attracted critics, who say it exacerbates the challenges that helpers already face in their challenging roles.

For example, Hong Kong has struggled for a long time with limited residential spaces and high house prices. Many families live in cramped apartments with little space for their families, let alone helpers.

In this environment, helpers often complain of long hours, lack of privacy and uncomfortable sleeping conditions. There is also the risk of abuse by their employers; when this happens, leaving a job is rarely an option. Doing so would threaten their visa status, employment and ability to support their families.

Dolores Balladares, a 50-year-old from the Philippines, arrived in Hong Kong at the age of 25.

He says that in his first job, he didn’t have his room. Instead, her employer installed delicate curtains for privacy, similar to those used around hospital beds, around the living room sofa. At the end of his working day, Balladares drew the curtains around him and struggled to sleep.

His employers and their children continued to watch television a few paces in the same room.

“It was so demeaning,” said Balladares of that first job.

Furthermore, living means that there is no real differentiation between the working space of many helpers and the personal living space: it is all the same family. The limits of working life can completely dissolve, especially since there are no laws on maximum daily or weekly working time.

Balladares said he often worked more than 12 hours a day, sometimes waking up at 5 in the morning and not sleeping until one in the morning.

“It was a family of five, the parents worked both and all the children studied, so I did everything,” he said. “From preparing breakfast to taking the kids to the school bus, then going to the market, ironing, teaching the kids homework, cleaning the house and cooking before sleeping at night.”

Although the law requires helpers to receive a 24-hour day off every week, this is often not the case. On rest days, Balladares says she would still be asked to clean the family cars before leaving to meet her friends – and was told to be home by 20:00. so he could clean the dishes and help bathe the children.

In the MFMW survey, over half of respondents said that, like Balladares, they did not have their own rooms and instead “alternative sleeping arrangements”. Helpers often share a bunk bed with one of the children in the family.

More than half said they worked between 11 and 16 hours a day, while 44% said they worked for more than 16 hours. Almost half said they were invited to work on rest days. Another 29% said they did not receive enough food, that an employer is legally required to provide or that he has been given a check.

Choose between security and income

Many helpers who face these conditions, or physical and sexual abuse, are often reluctant to report it to the authorities for fear of jeopardizing their livelihood. Taking legal action would be financially and emotionally exhausting and could potentially deter future employers – it’s not an easy risk to take when family members return home to support.

If aides leave their job before their two-year contract expires, they have 14 days to find a new job, or they have to leave Hong Kong unless they have “exceptional approval”, according to a guide from the immigration department.
The Hong Kong housewife was jailed for six years for abusing the young Indonesian maid
Numerous global humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, have asked the Hong Kong government to repeal this 14-day rule, arguing that it discourages helpers from leaving abusive or exploitative situations.

“The problem here is that the rule (live-in) makes them vulnerable,” said Karen Ng, case manager of the non-profit organization HELP for Domestic Workers. “It is forcing the worker to choose between their safety and earn an income to support their families.”

Even if the aides speak, they often don’t have enough evidence to help them, added Ng: when they live, the only witnesses are the family members of the employers.

The best-known case of helper abuse caught the attention of the city in 2015, when Hong Kong housewife Law Wan-tung was found guilty of abusing her aide, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a 23-year-old woman from Indonesia .

The law regularly beat Erwiana with the handles and hangers and forced her to sleep on the floor, only for five hours a night. Erwiana received only meager food rations and warned that her parents would be killed if she told anyone.

Former Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih speaks during an event in Hong Kong on March 27, 2016.
During Erwiana’s trial, Law’s two children, who lived in the apartment during the abuse, did not provide evidence against his mother. One testified that he was “kind” to the helpers.

Although Law was sentenced to prison for six years, systemic changes did not follow.

In a report published later in the same year, the government said that changing the rule of living would put a strain on the city’s housing and public transportation systems and “would go against FDH’s import logic and fundamental policy. that local employees (including local domestic helpers) should have priority in employment. ”

A year later, Marta presented her legal challenge against the rule.

The struggle to change the rule

In 2016, Marta filed for a judicial review, claiming that the residence rule was discriminatory and increased the risk of violating the fundamental rights of helpers.

Helpers only want the option to live, she and other activists argue – and not everyone would necessarily take it. Many helpers who have good working relationships with their employers appreciate the economic element of living, which allows them to send more money home to the family.

Some employers also prefer to have an option if they don’t feel comfortable inviting a stranger to live in their home.

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In such cases, some employers agree to pay for their helpers to live in illegal pensions, which offer shared rooms and common areas. Helpers get their space, their privacy and more control over working hours, but they also face a greater risk, as the police occasionally raids.

“I want freedom – the freedom to choose,” said Marta. “Why not try to get freedom for both the employer and the employee?”

But his first challenge failed. In 2018, the judge closed the case and confirmed the rule, arguing that in cases of mistreatment, the problem was the bad employer, not the fact that the assistant lived in the same family.

“There was insufficient evidence” that the live-in rule significantly increased the risk of violating fundamental rights or that the rule caused directly abuse, the judge wrote.

The government praised the layoff, adding in a statement that helpers could “terminate the contract at any time” if they didn’t want to live with their employers.

The statement did not mention the 14-day rule, or the fact that many helpers who leave the contract legally must return to their home countries before applying again for a job and a visa.

The government response sparked anger between helpers and activists.

A lens in the hidden life of Hong Kong domestic workers

“We shouldn’t think of domestic workers as throwing away -” you don’t like the terms, don’t come, “said Ng.” They are contributing a lot to society, so why can’t we see them that way? We should take into consideration that they have rights, they have needs. “

Marta now lives with a new employer who says she treats her well, respects her working hours and provides her with her room. He has found a caring community in his church and is working to heal, but says he is still fighting the rule.

He appealed the sentence and is waiting for the court to release his decision. It is not clear when the judgment will come.

“If the employer is kind, that’s fine – but what about helpers who have no food, no space, no rest, so no options and no freedom?” she said.

“I’m not just fighting for myself, but I’m fighting for others. I’m thinking about other people, because they have an option.”

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