22 January 2014

Helpers be Helped – Special Chinese New Year Double Issue 救救外傭 – 春節雙刊

The images are gruesome and the details are chilling. A woman held captive in a residence has been starved and beaten beyond recognition. Her teeth are chipped, cheekbones fractured and her limbs covered with cuts and burn marks. It sounds like the Ariel Castro kidnappings in suburban Cleveland or the Brixton Bookshop abduction in Lambeth, England – except it is not. It all happened in Tseung Kwan O, a densely populated community of high-rise residential blocks and large shopping centers. It was there 23-year-old Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was allegedly tortured at the hands of her Hong Kong employer for eight months. She was not paid a cent.

Erwiana, before and after her eight-month stay in Hong Kong

By now the story has captured the attention of the entire city – and far beyond. Not since Edward Snowden checked into the Mira Hotel last summer had so much spotlight been thrown on the not-so-Fragrant Harbour. Beneath the media frenzy and tabloid-style coverage, however, is the sad reality that Erwiana is not alone. In the past six months, a spate of similar abuse cases have come to light, all of them involving Indonesian workers who have a reputation for being soft-spoken and easily intimidated. Last September, for instance, a Hong Kong couple was jailed for falsely imprisoning their maid, beating her with a bicycle chain and scalding her with an iron. Just last week, a Chinese University professor was arrested for assaulting her 50-year-old helper. To get a sense of how common these abuse cases are, look no further than Bethune House, a shelter for foreign domestic workers that handles hundreds of assault cases every year. A recent survey by Mission for Migrant Workers found that nearly one in five domestic helpers in Hong Kong had been physically abused.

At first glance, it seems implausible that prolonged cases of domestic violence and false imprisonment can go unreported in a crowded city like Hong Kong. Many wonder why victims like Erwiana put up with the abuse instead of running away the first chance they get. The answer is simple: domestic helpers in Hong Kong are trapped in a system that is stacked against them. Among the many flaws in our migrant worker policy and its execution, none puts the domestic helper in a more vulnerable position than the dual evil of unlawful agency fees and the 14-day deportation rule. 

The alleged abuser, 44-year-old housewife Law Wan-tung, in police custody

Employment Agency Fees

By law, employment agencies in Hong Kong are permitted to charge up to 10% of the migrant worker’s minimum monthly pay, or HK$401 (US$52). Back in their home countries, there are laws regulating recruitment and training fees. What happens in practice, however, is a different matter. Agencies on both ends routinely extort exorbitant amounts from migrant workers who are desperate for a job placement. The going rate in Hong Kong is HK$28,000 (US$3,600), roughly seven times the worker’s monthly salary and 70 times over the legal limit. Erwiana allegedly paid her agency HK$18,000 (US$2,300), an amount considered a bargain by the community’s standard. To avoid getting caught, crafty employment agencies accept only cash and never issue receipts.

Migrant workers pay these hefty fees by borrowing from friends and family, but more often, from moneylenders in Hong Kong. The five-figure principal, plus interest accruing at a double-digit rate (sometimes as high as 60%), forces the helper to turn over nearly all of her salary for months, sometimes even years, to pay off the debt. Illegal agency fees are the leading cause of distress for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, as well as the main reason why abused women like Erwiana choose not to flee from their House of Horrors. For once they escape, they will be out of a job and their mounting debt will go unpaid. Debt collectors and their harassment tactics will follow. One nightmare will simply give way to another.

Erwiana's employment agency

All that is happening under the nose of our government. Despite repeated pleas from the migrant worker community to crack down on excessive agency fees, law enforcement turns a blind eye. After all, there are billion-dollar drug trades to bust and weekly anti-government protests to rein in. Who would bother with petty consumer disputes between foreign maids and their agencies? In the meantime, bureaucrats go on renewing business licenses held by unscrupulous employment agencies and moneylenders year after year. In fact, if Time magazine and the Associated Press hadn’t picked up Erwiana’s story, would Labour Secretary Matthew Cheung have just let the police handle the incident as a common assault case and not have said a word about punishing employment agencies?

The Labour Secretary finally said he would
do something about bad employment agencies

14-day Reemployment Rule

By law, foreign domestic workers must leave Hong Kong within 14 days after their employment contract is terminated, unless a new placement is secured and a new work visa issued. The rule effectively evicts from the city any migrant worker who leaves her job, as the new work visa alone takes six weeks to process. The two-week provision is designed to achieve two objectives. First, the government wishes to deter employer-shopping and job-hopping. Even though it is perfectly normal for everyone else in Hong Kong to look for a better job and jump ship every now and then, it is not so for a migrant worker. Maids who quit and work for another home are looked upon as greedy and irresponsible.

The second objective is as unspoken as it is ignoble: to put arbitrary restrictions on the domestic helper’s stay to distinguish them from other expatriates. The distinction can have far-reaching consequences. In March 2013, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that foreign domestic workers, unlike fellow expatriates who work at big banks and law firms, are not entitled to permanent residency in Hong Kong regardless of the length of their stay. Focusing on the 14-day reemployment rule, the city’s highest court found the residence of a domestic helper “highly restrictive” and therefore not “ordinary” enough to meet the constitutional requirements for permanent residency.

As a result of the 14-day rule, migrant workers who switch jobs must live abroad while their new work visas are being processed. That’s why there are now boarding houses all over Macau and Guangdong where maids-in-waiting take up temporary residence in horrid conditions. For abused helpers like Erwiana, the risk of not finding alternative employment, the threat of deportation and the peril of borrowing more money for another round of agency fees is enough for her to bite the bullet and remain in the torture chamber.

"Please leave the city in 14 days. Thank you."

Other Systemic Failures

The mandatory live-in rule prohibits the domestic helper from living anywhere other than her employer’s home. The rule, based on racist and sexist assumptions about South East Asian women, is designed to prevent prostitution and other illegal activities when they are off duty. The irony is that Hong Kong is just about the least qualified place in the world to impose a cohabitation requirement. In fact, the same survey by Mission for Migrant Workers found that 30% of helpers are told to sleep in kitchens, bathrooms, hallways and closets.

Each time the government is asked to repeal the live-in rule, it will hide behind the same party line: doing so would exacerbate the city’s housing shortage and increase the cost of domestic help. It is a roundabout way of telling migrant workers to suck it up and “take one for the team.” Contrary to the government’s claim, however, killing the live-in rule is unlikely to unleash 300,000 maids into our streets, for the vast majority of helpers will choose to live with their employers to avoid high rent and a lengthy commute even if the rule is abolished. Instead, the policy change will give domestic helpers the option to seek an alternative living arrangement and, in Erwiana’s case, sufficient physical space to mitigate the chance and frequency of violence.

It's not uncommon to put the maid in the toilet

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring of persons by the use of force or other forms of coercion… for the purpose of exploitation.” Nearly every developed country has enacted anti-human trafficking (AHT) legislation in an effort to eliminate sex exploitation and forced labor. The latter covers involuntary servitude, debt bondage and restriction of movement, terms that resonate with many domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Incidentally, in August 2013, a Hong Kong man living in Vancouver was sentenced by a Canadian court to 18 months in prison for human trafficking. The accused was caught paying his Filipino maid (whom he had brought from Hong Kong) below the local statutory minimum wage and making her work seven days a week, conditions that were mild compared to what Erwiana had allegedly experienced.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong does not have an AHT statute that imposes stiff fines and heavy prison terms to deter forced labor. There is nothing in the law book that would slap an abusive employer with anything more than a “wounding” or “intimidation” charge or punish non-compliant employment agencies beyond revoking their business licenses. The absence of comprehensive AHT laws is coupled with a police force that thinks the only form of human trafficking is prostitution. In the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department wrote extensively about the foreign domestic worker issues in Hong Kong and gave the city a “Tier 2” rating for “securing no forced labor convictions… against abusive employers... or employment agencies [that] have charged fees in excess of Hong Kong law.” The report is downloadable from the State Department website and for all the world to see.

Available at www.state.gov

 *                      *                      *

It has been four decades since the first batch of foreign domestic helpers arrived in Hong Kong from the Philippines. Since then, our economy has taken off but their status and working conditions have gone the other direction. Their grievances about domestic violence and unlawful business practices have fallen on seven million pairs of deaf ears. We either brush them off as “isolated incidents” or, as some have shamelessly suggested, turn to even more docile workers from Bangladesh and Myanmar. But enough is enough. The time to take a hard look at our migrant worker policy is now.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih has been failed by our city in every way: by her employer and employment agency, by our law enforcement and policymakers. Every safeguard in the system has failed, all the way to the end when she fled the city for medical help, when immigration officers at the airport noticed her severe injuries but chose to do nothing. There are no words to describe the depth of her suffering or the breadth of our collective callousness. In the same way many Hong Kongers are demanding Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to apologize for the Manila hostage crisis in 2010, the migrant worker community in Hong Kong will be justified in asking C.Y. Leung for an apology for all the systemic failures that have led to Erwiana’s plight.

The city owes them an apology


This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Why Hong Kong's government should apologise for failing abused domestic workers."

As posted on SCMP.com


  1. Great assessment of this tragic situation. I read that in some cases, people hire helpers as a status symbol and that in reality they could handle the work by themselves.


  2. Completely agree. Good article. Hope the media attention stays on this.


  3. Powerful article. Thank you.


  4. Nice analysis of the situation Jason.

    My heart sank seeing the pictures of Erwiana. The one you posted was nothing compared to the ones I found on the internet. The injuries she sustained really were gruesome. It begs the question, how can anyone be so heartless and violent? 每個人都有亞媽生… She is someone else’s baby too.

    Anyhow, the whole domestic helper dynamic in HK has one and only one cause: 官商勾結between the government and the 地產霸權。

    Housing and the cost of living is so expensive in Hong Kong that most families cannot afford to buy or rent a decent place to live unless both husband and wife go out to work. Cheap domestic helpers becomes a necessity. The domestic helpers are sacrificing their youth, sometimes health and safety, for the benefits of the real estate developers.

    If the HK government doesn’t turn a blind eye to the perils the domestic helpers face, most HK families will not be able to afford domestic helpers at all, and that, in my opinion, will not sit well with the real estate developers.



    1. To Grace:

      官商勾結 and 地產霸權 are the roots of it all.

      Things are slowly changing. The good sign is the younger generations as a whole are a lot more assertive and socially conscious than our predecessors.

      Just that changes are not going as fast as many of us would like.

      Changes will come only if we stick together and fight back as a social cause. It may take a while. But I am optimistic.


  5. Nailed it. Hope this would cause a re-think in policies, both in hong kong and in the sending countries.



    1. To Daisy:

      I agree.

      Hong Kong is not an innocent party in this case. But the "sending" countries is not entirely blameless.

      If these countries take good care of their own citizens and provide opportunities for making a decent living in their own countries, these poor young women would not have to suffer in the hands of those heartless HK employers.

      One problem is the culture of these "sending" countries do not respect women and see their female citizens as objects and second-class citizens.


    2. True, many countries in the world are poor, but it is irrelevant to this discussion. It wouldn't make any difference if those countries treated their people better, the demand for domestic workers would still be strong in Hong Kong. The issue is how domestic helpers are treated and also about tackling prejudice and ignorance in general.


    3. To whoever you are:

      How many Japanese or Koreans have you seen working in HK as domestic helpers? How many White domestic helpers do you know working in HK for that matter? I think you got my drift.

      Let me tell you something. My family has been living here since Shatin was nothing but bamboo groves and rice paddies. Many of my forebears were vegetable farmers in the N.T. and servants working on the Peak and its surrounding areas in the old days when China was poor and "Chinese" was commonly used as an adjective by those speakers of English who ran this whole place.

      Do not tell me that "it wouldn't make any difference".

      I agree that HK's demand for domestic helpers is strong. But, do you always willing to meet other people's demand if you are not poor, your country is not weak, or you have a better option?

      Are you the one here going to tell or "teach" us how to "tackle prejudice and ignorance in general"?'. Under 150 plus years of colonial rule, we know a thing or two about prejudice.

      I define the issue that I want to write about, not you.


  6. Thanks, Daisy, for answering my many questions!


  7. Great assessment Jason Y. Ng, thanks for writing this article.


  8. Thank you, Jason, for this excellent article!


  9. Terrible, exploitation, abuse continues.


  10. It breaks my heart when I see these girls come from their home countries to a strange place, where they are treated with sub-human cruelty. How can one human being do this to another? And yet it happens time and time again.



    1. To Caroline:

      You must be living in a sheltered life.

      You have no idea of what one human is capable of doing unimaginable thing to another.

      I suggest you read Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. A couple new translations(into English) of Hugo's stuff published in the past few years are pretty good---a lot better than the old standard translated versions. Give them a try.

      I recommend Les Miserables.


  11. thanks this articles! God Bless!


  12. We do not need to engage in a war of "Hong Kong people" vs "Indonesians" or vs. "domestic workers". We do have to accept the reaity that in Hong Kong, large numbers of abuses have also been occurring for years - abuses leading to permanent injuries, huge losses of precious earnings, and even death. As long as these abuses keep repeating, it cannot be correctly seen as individual matters; they are SYSTEMIC and the government MUST take serious action to INCREASE protection of the workers, and DETER abuse through suitable oversight and punishment.

    Open Door

    1. I totally agree. We need to stop using labels for each other and remember that everyone man, woman and child in the world is born equal and should be treated as such. Do you agree? :)

  13. Something has to be done to protect domestic helpers from physical abuse.Either the HongKong Government overhaul it's laws regarding domestic workers or their own government will need to review their rules on exporting labour especially women.


  14. I hope this incident will be an eye opener to everyone concerned.


  15. Well said!


  16. This has got to be a challenge to the notion "presumed innocent until proven guilty". The press should be careful for otherwise Defendant may succeed in applying for a stay.


  17. Well written and timely article Jason. Thanks for echoing our thoughts.


  18. Thank you all for the overwhelming response here, on Facebook and on SCMP.com! It's heartwarming to know there are so many supporters of migrant workers!


  19. I've seen this article getting some circulation on LinkedIn too. Really great article.


  20. Excellent article! Very powerful! Your words are motivational for people to get more engaged in the conversation and involved in action!



  21. Hong Kong is strange place.

    The English speaking people here only want to talk about HK politics with foreign passport holders but not the HK Chinese.

    Evidently, the posters here like to talk about the natives but not talk with them.



  22. There's the flip side to the story of Eriwana. My maid has worked for us for 24 years without so much as an incident. Nothing was ever lost. Two weeks ago she went into ParkNShop. She carried with her an environmental bag. She headed to the meat counter and picked up some pork. She continued with her shopping. Halfway through she thought she had better separate the meat from grocery items. She placed the meat into the bag. She was forgetful. She did not pay for the items in the bag - $500. Arrested for shoplifting she was grilled for over 11 hours at the police station. She admitted stealing under caution because she was eager to go home. She was told she could get away with a small fine. Later, she regretted it. We have no choice but to defend her in court. A barrister will fight her case. I wish her luck. She deserves it after working so long for the same family without so much as a blemish in her record. She is from the Philippines.


  23. Thanks for sharing your story, Robert. Good luck to your helper and she is lucky to have you as an employer.



    1. To Jason:

      For a businessman--selling your books--I would give you a A.

      For a lawyer, I would give you a C-minus. You need to hear both sides of the story. So far, you only heard it from this expat who portrays himself as a kind-hearted employer of a wrongly accused Filipino maid, who may or may not have an ulterior motive.

      For a writer, I would give you a B. I can tell you can write a decent brief.

      For the rest of the posters here--they were so shocked and heart-broken by what's going on here in this city--they need to read Charles Dickens, and the history of Ireland, ancient and modern, up to the present-day Belfast.

      It doesn't make it right; I am in no way condoning it. But, in the grand scheme of things, what we talking about here is nothing new under the sun.


  24. Thank you for an illuminating article. I didn't realize before reading this that there was a whole ecosystem of taking advantage of the helpers, with tacit approval by the government - it is chilling to see this is going on at this day and age.


  25. A beautiful poem for Valentine's Day:












    The Chinese natives can be romantic, tender, and loving too.

    So, don't be so quick to condemn as the people posting here usually do.

    In case you do not know the language the poem is written in, it is the language that is native to over 94% of HK's general population.

    Each line of the poem is the name of a well-known Chinese love song. I am not surprised if you have never heard of them.

    Happy Valentine's Day to you all.



    1. Oh, I forgot one thing.

      The poem is from 魚之樂, one of my favorite HK blogs.

  26. Just wonder if somebody is paid to post anti-comments of other readers here. By going through the list of comments posted up here, it automatically gives one that impression.

    Good job. HKBC, you have done it again.

    Tat Man