She curls up in the kitchen, and keeps herself alert in the darkness.
Her employer may command her anytime. Every action she makes will be recorded by a surveillance camera, working is her only way to survive. She has no rest, respect or recognition, she is a “slave” in this family.
There are 34 million registered migrant workers, composing 10% of the working population in Hong Kong. Yet, over 50 thousand foreign domestic helpers are victims of forced labour according to a survey conducted by Justice Centre Hong Kong in 2016. They cannot enjoy the freedom of employment, recruitment and working. The figures are staggering and on top of this, over 95% of foreign workers are exploited by their employers. The issue is gaining widespread concern and awareness among society.
The Mission for Migrant Workers, a charitable organization provides services and training skills to Asian migrant workers. Also, it is well-known as a refuge for workers who seek shelter and help from unequal treatment.
“I only received $4,000 for 4 months from my first employer which is illegal as the minimum wage in Hong Kong should be $4,310 per month. Therefore, I turned to the MFMW and sued my employer,” said Ewine, a member of MFMW, who succeed in her case recently. “There are lots of cases like me, not just got treated (poorly) by employers but also the agencies,” she added.
According to a report by MFMW, 96% of 5,038 clients were charged illegally by the agencies. Generally, the range of the amount charged by agencies is in HK$5,001-HK$10,000, reported by 47% of workers.
“I need to pay $20,000 loan within six months to the agency which is excluded in the contact,” said Mary, who refused to reveal her real name. Yet, under the Employment Agency regulation, recruiters can only charge for a maximum 10% of the workers’ first month’s wages which should amount to HK$431. Some agencies may even confiscate the foreign workers’ passports as a tool to prevent them escape from their families.
“Even if the workers are undergoing an unequal treatment, the agencies will not provide any help to the workers after three months,” a spokeswoman of the Open Door which work on improving the living situation of migrant workers in Hong Kong.
Apart from the exploitation of the employers and agencies, it is difficult for foreign domestic workers to achieve justice and fairness from the government due to numerous loopholes in the implementation of Hong Kong’s labour laws.
Under the current labour law, the live-in policy requires domestic helpers to stay at their employer’s house. This was designed by lawmakers to prohibit the workers from taking part-
time jobs during their stay as to prevent competition with local workers. Although the government requires employers to provide ‘suitable accommodation and reasonable privacy’ to workers, it has yet to set up a system to ensure the helpers’ living and working condition. Furthermore, employers can take advantages of domestic helpers as there is no legal restriction on working hours.
“I have to (be) on call (for) 24 hours, even when I am eating or sleeping, my employer can force me to work in anytime, said Betty, who also declined to give her real name for protection.
Worse still, the live-in policy deprives the freedom and privacy from the workers.
“I don’t enjoy any privacy. Even (on) holiday, my employer will call me to come back earlier for work.
“I cannot stop myself from working as my employer will misunderstand me, so the only way to survive is working at all the time,” said Betty. Once, she was scolded by her “master” because she used her mobile phone while she was cooking. “After that, I never dare to use mobile phone at home anymore, only contact my family during holiday.” she added.
In light of the migrant workers’ plight and unsatisfactory working conditions, the “3W” concept was raised by the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union: minimum Wage, maximum Working hours and Women’s rights.
“We are workers, not slaves, we scream,” a spokeswoman of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union said. “Hong Kong already become the second hometown to us, we are not only working here but being a part of the community. We want more respect and recognition from society” she said.
Hong Kong’s proportion of people enslaved is the ninth-highest place in Asia, in the same ranking category, including North Korea and Cambodia. About 3 million people are classified as suffering from “modern slavery”, according to a report from Global Slavery Index 2016. Nevertheless, HKSAR government has been described as “taking the least action” to combat and tackle the problem.
More comprehensive policies and laws are needed to protect the victims of human trafficking, forced labour or other forms of modern-day slavery, according to jade Anderson, coordinator for a local campaign group ‘Anti-human Trafficking’.
However, the government rejects the idea of ‘modern slavery’ taking place in Hong Kong. “The SAR and people did not condone ‘in any way’ acts of modern slavery,” a spokesman of HKSAR government said in a coverage in the South China Morning Post.
To acknowledge and recognise the problem of forced labour is the first step of the HKSAR government towards solving it, according to a report by Justice Centre Hong Kong in 2016. They recommend the amendments of the current policies to increase the minimum wage, and address the ‘live-in’ policy in order to tackle the plight of domestic workers.
Due to the nature of foreign domestic helpers’ work which perform a variety of household services for an individual or family, they are often being labelled, commoditised and even discriminated by society.
Can you hear their voice?
Foreign domestic helpers might be the strangers in your family. But they are also human beings, who contributed to our family and community, therefore they deserve our respect and recognition.
Posted on May 10, 2018