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Hong Kong's domestic worker abuse

Indonesian maid tells her story of violence, while Amnesty says thousands live in similar conditions.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2014 11:57
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Erwiana's parents say she suffers dizziness and headaches from repeated blows [Jack Hewson/Al Jazeera]

Sragen, Indonesia - Erwiana Sulistyaningsih cut an unusual figure as she limped through Hong Kong airport in six T-shirts and two pairs of trousers on January 10. The extra layers did little to veil the injuries to her hands and feet and heavy facial swelling.

Erwiana said she was dropped off that evening by her former employer, Law Wantung. The 23-year-old maid said her boss bought her a flight to her home country, Indonesia, gave her 100,000 rupiah ($8.40), and told her never to talk to anyone about what had happened to her in Hong Kong.

"She told me that she knew a lot of people in Indonesia and if I said anything she would have my parents killed," Erwiana told Al Jazeera, surrounded by her family in a hospital bed in Sragen, Central Java.

Doctors at Amel Sehat Islamic Hospital say she is suffering from swelling of the brain from repeated blows to the head. She also has several broken teeth, a broken nose and her hands and feet are brown and swollen with cellulitis - an infection of the skin that resulted from her long-untreated wounds.

Erwiana said her wounds are the product of seven months of abuse that she suffered while "working" as a domestic helper. The 100,000 rupiah she was given at the airport is the only remuneration she received, she said.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, says her employer complained that blood and puss seeping from her wounds stained her carpet [Jack Hewson/Al Jazeera]

Hong Kong police have announced that four crime-squad officers will be dispatched to Indonesia on Monday to interview Erwiana.

Dangerous assignment

About 330,000 foreigners work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. London-based rights group Amnesty International said thousands from Indonesia are being tricked into working in Hong Kong by brokers and agencies with callous disregard for their clients' welfare. Many are forced to pay extortionate recruitment fees and are abused by their employers.

Erwiana was recruited in Indonesia by PT Graha Ayukarsa, with whom she said she agreed to have HK$2,543 ($328) deducted from her HK$3,920 ($505) monthly wage, until a HK$18,000 ($2,320) recruitment fee was paid off. Hong Kong's minimum wage is HK$4,010 ($517) and it is illegal to impose recruitment fees of more than 10 percent on the first month's wage.

Erwiana was then placed by Chan's Asia Recruitment Centre, PT Graha Ayukarsa's Hong Kong partner, and arrived to work on her boss's 36th-floor apartment in Tseung Kwan O, an upmarket Hong Kong suburb, in May 2013.

"When I first came to Hong Kong I thought it was a kind of luxurious place, an amazing place. But it was not the reality for me," she said.

According to Erwiana she received no days off, was confined to the apartment, and was given a small portion of rice as her daily meal.

After receiving no payment for her first month's work, Erwiana escaped and said that she called her local agent from a public telephone on the ground floor of the apartment complex.

But when the agent arrived to meet her, Erwiana said, she was told her employer would provide payment, and was brought back to the apartment.

It was then, she said, that the violence began.

She told me that she knew a lot of people in Indonesia and if I said anything she would have my parents killed.

- Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, domestic worker

According to Erwiana the beatings were sporadic at first, but slowly became a daily ordeal. Sometimes she was told it was because she'd failed to hear an instruction, sometimes apparently for no reason at all.

"She would beat me with a lot of different implements, most usually with the handle of my mop. She would hit me all over, but mostly on my head," she said. "I had to work for 21 hours a day. I didn't have my own room so whenever I could sleep I would sleep on the floor.

"If [one of her two teenage] children found me sleeping when I wasn't supposed to be they'd tell her and she'd beat me again."

Carpet stains

In the final weeks of her ordeal, Erwiana said blood and puss ran from her wounds prompting her employer to complain that it was staining the carpet. She said her boss wrapped her wounds in bandages and plastic bags, but it still seeped out. Erwiana said a few days later she was driven to the airport.

Halfway through an interview with Al Jazeera, Erwiana became dizzy from the strain of recounting her story. Since returning to Indonesia she has suffered severe headaches from any prolonged period of concentration.

Erwiana's friend, Riyanti, sat at the foot of her bed. The pair met as Erwiana struggled through Hong Kong airport. Riyanti, who was also returning from a placement as a domestic helper, realised Erwiana was seriously injured and encouraged her to go to the police. Scared her employer would cancel her ticket home, Erwiana continued on without filing a report. Riyanti helped her home and has remained with her since.

"I was lucky - my employer paid me as agreed and was not violent. But this is not the first time I've heard of other cases like Erwiana's," she said. "I am staying to get justice for her."

Amnesty said there are thousands such as Erwiana who suffer conditions tantamount to modern-day slavery working in Hong Kong.

Since her case has made international headlines, another women identified as Bunga has come forward claiming also to have worked for Erwiana's employer. Bunga reported similar abuse, and in one incident said she begged for her life after her boss threatened to throw her off the balcony.

Hong Kong police are investigating [Jack Hewson/Al Jazeera]

Vulnerability

"When you see cases like [Erwiana's] - of [alleged] extreme physical abuse - it's tempting to see them as isolated," Robert Godden, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific coordinator, told Al Jazeera.

"But actually, when you look into the specifics…many of the factors leading to the abuse can be applied to thousands of migrant domestic workers: underpayment, the employer didn't pay the minimum wage; restrictions on movement; you can see that she was heavily indebted by the illegal recruitment fees charged by the agency; and you can see that she didn't know how to access justice."

Amnesty said the vulnerability of migrant workers is compounded by discriminating labour laws and reluctant law enforcement.

"[Victims] tend to not to be taken seriously and are discouraged from filing complaints...That seems to have been the case [for Erwiana] when it wasn't until a lot of public pressure through the media came to bear on the police, that they actually started actively investigating.

"We have anecdotal reports from those who have tried to file reports before that they have been discouraged by the police."

Godden said racial discrimination against migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong's broader population is borne out in government policy and regulation. "Much of this is things you pick up within society, but we would focus on the regulation system itself, and show how it perpetuates or causes some of the abuse to take place."

According to an Amnesty report published in November, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's (SAR) "two-week rule" states that migrant domestic workers must find new employment within two weeks of their contract ending or being terminated, or they have to leave Hong Kong.

This pressures workers to remain with abusive employers; if they leave their job, they are likely to have to leave the country, which for many would make it impossible to repay the recruitment fees and support their families in Indonesia.

The two-week rule also obstructs justice. If a migrant domestic worker leaves an abusive employer and is not re-employed within two weeks, she must leave Hong Kong, making it difficult and costly for her to file a case.

It's a failing by the Hong Kong authorities to say 'you need to complain if you have some grievance'. Actually, they need to proactively police and regulate the agencies.

- Robert Godden, Amnesty International

No escape

Migrant domestic workers are also legally required to live with their employer, leaving no means of escape should the employer become abusive.

According to Amnesty, many agencies charge illegal recruitment fees but the government is doing nothing to police the problem.

"It's a failing by the Hong Kong authorities to say 'you need to complain if you have some grievance'. Actually, they need to proactively police and regulate the agencies," Godden said.

Responding to the criticism, Hong Kong SAR Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung released a statement saying the government would step up regulation and "enforcement action", in particular the inspection of employment agencies.

"In this particular [Erwiana's] case, the Labour Department has been in close touch with the agency concerned and we will certainly impress upon all agencies in Hong Kong that they should protect the interest of helpers," he said.

Nyoman Darmanta, deputy director of international cooperation at Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bapak Hima, the local agent of PT Graha Ayukarsa, said he did not want to be interviewed. Bapak A Siong, owner of PT Graha Ayukarsa, didn't respond to phone calls.

Chan's Asia Recruitment Centre failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. Erwiana's employer could not be contacted by publication time. 

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