The International Migrants Alliance (IMA) strongly condemns the spate of abuse being suffered by migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and other countries amid the ongoing COVID crisis.
While the Hong Kong government is praised by many for its effective containment of the COVID-19 pandemic, its concern for the health and wellbeing of Hong Kong residents does not seem to extend to the invisible heroes who clean, feed and care for Hong Kong families even as they are separated from their own. According to the Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW), a non-profit organization that provides shelter, rescue and emergency assistance to migrant workers in distress in Hong Kong, the number of distressed foreign domestic workers they assisted in 2020 more than doubled to 11,285 compared to 5,023 in 2019.
This rising trend in the incidence of abuse of migrant domestic workers continues this year. They include Herlina, a migrant domestic worker from Indonesia who fled her employer last June 24 after nearly 18 months of abuse. Aside from doing the usual domestic chores, Herlina was tasked to care for 75 dogs and other pets kept by the family in their four-story villa. For four months she was only allowed to sleep at 3am or 4am to attend to the demands of her male employer who was also physically abusive. On more than a few occasions, he pulled her hair, threw items at her on numerous occasions and hit her on the hands and head with a fishing rod. She was also allowed only two rest days in a month, contrary to the one rest day per week prescribed by law, and her employers kept her passport to prevent her from escaping. Her fellow domestic helpers, who worked in the same household but assigned to assist other members of the family, were all terminated after Herlina escaped. All of them are now faced with the prospect of being deported from Hong Kong, an injustice on top of the injustice they have already suffered under their employer.
This follows the case of Eden, a Filipina migrant domestic worker who also fled her employer after mustering the courage to free herself from 14 months of abuse. Over the length of Eden’s employment in Hong Kong, her employer often slapped, kicked and scratched her face, back and legs, and hit her with a frying pan and a metal food turner. Her body bore signs of prolonged abuse as some of the wounds were healing while others were still raw by the time she was able to escape. Her employer forbade her from taking her weekly rest day purportedly as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. She was only able to escape when her employer and her family left her alone in the house.
Herlina’s and Eden’s cases are certainly horrendous, but they are not unique. Many migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and elsewhere are treated as modern-day slaves. Their precarious status as “guest workers” in a foreign country and their social isolation as domestic workers leave them vulnerable to abuse. But state policies for migrant domestic workers such as the HK government’s mandatory live-in policy and the lack of regulations on suitable living conditions and working hours render them invisible, unprotected and extra vulnerable to all sorts of abuse.
The COVID crisis has made conditions worse for migrant domestic workers who are now forced to take on additional work and longer working hours at the same time that they are denied their weekly day off “to limit spread of COVID-19.” Many are forced to work seven days a week in their employer’s home. The denial of rest days for MDWs has been tacitly supported by government officials as part of pandemic containment measures.
This is not just happening in Hong Kong. Around the world, at least 11.5 million people earn their living as migrant domestic workers, three-fourths of them are women. In rich countries, particularly in Northern, Southern and Western Europe and the Arab States, over two-thirds of all domestic workers are migrants. They clean, cook, look after children and take care of the elderly, among other tasks. Domestic workers provide much needed skills and make invaluable contributions to the families and homes they care for, and to society at large. Yet their contribution is often not valued, and they remain largely unprotected and subject to abuse.
The Kafala system in Gulf countries allows the employer to control the entire lives of MDW from the moment of they arrive at the airport until they leave the country. Employers keep their passport and decide their workload, their rest time, their sleep time, and all their movements. Even in wealthy “liberal democracies” like the U.S. and U.K., migrant domestic workers often lack accurate information on the terms and conditions of their employment, face restrictions on their freedom of movement and association, excluded from assistance and protection mechanisms, and fall through the gaps in labour law coverage and enforcement.
Faced with high levels of debt, no passport and fear of losing their jobs, MDWs often suffer abusive conditions in silence. Those who try to escape and seek alternative employment are accused of job-hopping by the Hong Kong government and denied work visas. Many find themselves unable to find alternative work anyway and go home instead of trying to claim unpaid wages or take those who abused them to court. As a result, very few employers or agencies are arrested or punished. This impunity breeds even more abuse. Governments are aware of this deplorable situation but do little to remedy it.
We demand justice for Herlina, Eden and all migrant domestic workers who suffer abuse. The Hong Kong government must ensure a swift and speedy trial of Herlina’s and Eden’s employers. We also call on the Indonesian and Philippine consulates in HK to provide all the necessary support to Herlina and Eden and their families back in Indonesia and the Philippines who depend on them. Indeed, the Indonesian and Philippine government’s Labour Export Policies are also responsible for sending them abroad. Had there been access to meaningful employment in their home countries, Herlina and Eden would not have applied to work overseas to begin with.
To prevent more abuses of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and elsewhere, we demand the same rights as those of the wider HK community including the right to change our employer if our working conditions are intolerable. We call on governments to remove all their discriminatory policies that place MDWs in a very vulnerable and unbearable situations.
Justice for Herlina and Eden!
End Modern-Day Slavery!
For reference: Eni Lestari, IMA Chairperson