Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, physical violence
By TRINA FEDERIS
HONG KONG — If only the walls in apartments (or flats, as they are called here) could talk, they would tell so many interesting stories. Walls are witnesses to momentous events, as well as everyday ordinariness. Just as there are many apartments in Hong Kong, there are also so many walls and so many stories in Asia’s World City.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes for everyone. For migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, it has heightened the ill-treatment and abuse they regularly experience; it has made the walls they face even higher.
June 16 is commemorated each year as International Domestic Workers Day. In this month, the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body and the Mission For Migrant Workers highlighted the recent spate of abuse cases. Hearing Southeast Asian migrant domestic workers’ testimonials will make one tear up out of rage and sense of injustice. These are their stories.
There is Herlina, who was ordered to dispose of three large aquariums by herself at 10:00 in the evening. The aquariums — two of which are two-layered, measuring 80 inches in height and 35 inches in width, and the other one 19 inches in height and 105 inches in width — were so heavy that she asked her fellow workers to assist her. Her male employer, however, forbade them from helping, and so she went to the garbage dump on her own. She was so tired that one of the aquariums fell on her foot and broke, causing a large, painful, bleeding wound.
She was merely given antibiotics that night. The next day, she was taken to a clinic, not a hospital, to get stitches. She was able to rest for only one day, before being ordered to work as usual, meaning sleeping at 4:00 a.m. and waking up at 9:00 a.m.
On June 23, she went to bed at 4:00 a.m. as usual. Her male employer woke her up at 5:00 a.m. He was angry because she was not able to arrange the fishing rods in the way he wanted them. She was made to hold out her arms while the employer hit her arms repeatedly with a fishing rod. The hook created holes in her hands. She was still ordered to clean the yard, and was even kicked in the leg.
She called her employment agency for help. The agency told her, however, to call the police herself. She also asked the assistance of the Indonesian Consulate through WhatsApp, but there was no reply. When she called the police, she was taken to the hospital, accompanied by one of her co-workers. She was later referred by an organization to the Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) for help, which is now handling her case.
Before the accident, Herlina was not allowed to leave the house for her day off every week, and was told that she might get infected with COVID-19. Her passport and employment contract were also confiscated by her agency upon arrival in Hong Kong.
Uun is Herlina’s friend. They worked for the same employer. Each of them paid more than HK$15,000 (US$1,931.83) to be able to work in Hong Kong.
Citing COVID-19, her employers did not allow her to go out for her days off. They, however, regularly invite friends and family for dinner every Saturday and Sunday. Her documents, her passport and employment contract, were never given to her.
Selly was sexually harassed by her employer. He would kiss, hug, and fondle her whenever he got the chance. He would even ask her to clean some parts of the house to have an opportunity to abuse her.
She asked her agency for help. The agency told her she needed to go back to Indonesia first if she wanted to change her employer. She did not want this, as she was worried about paying for the HK$20,244 (US$2,606.17) recruitment fee that she paid to be able to work in Hong Kong. So she stayed. She was able to ask for help when her female employer asked her to go out for some errands. She called the Mission For Migrant Workers, which is now handling her case and provided shelter for her.
Eden was physically abused by her female employer. Eden was in charge of taking care of two boys and doing household chores. In February, the baby was unable to finish eating the food. The female employer got angry, pumped dishwashing soap into the leftover congee, and forced Eden to eat it.
Her employer would get mad every time the baby cries. She would slap, kick, or scratch Eden on her face and body. One time, she hit Eden with a metal turner many times. All these incidents left scratches and bruises on Eden’s body, including her stomach and thighs (where the metal turner hit her). Her employer also threatened to kill Eden.
She was able to escape while her employer’s family was out of the house. Having difficulty in walking as she was in much pain, she went to her agency, which told her to report the abuse to the police. The police checked the injuries and instructed her to go to the hospital for a medical check-up. The next day, she sought the Mission for Migrant Workers for help. MFMW is now assisting her in the case, which was scheduled in record speed, after only a month. Cases are usually filed anywhere from six months to one year.
Putri was repeatedly sexually harassed before being raped twice by her employer. Her previous employer’s house only had one room, so she was made to sleep in the living room. This gave her male employer multiple opportunities to abuse her. After the rape incidents, she insisted to sleep on the floor of the rooftop, where she made her bed with two blankets and used another blanket to cover her. She felt somewhat safer there, as the door of the rooftop can be locked.
She asked the agency to change her employer. She was told, however, that to do so, she must finish her contract, or go back to her home country. Because of that, she returned to her employer’s house.
She felt ill after a month, so her female employer took her to the doctor. There, she was told that she was pregnant. She was ordered by her male employer to get an abortion or else she would be sent back to Indonesia.
Through an Indonesian organization, she was able to find the Mission for Migrant Workers to get help. MFMW is now helping her in her case. MFMW also referred her to a safe abode.
Worsening working conditions
In its 2020 Service Report, the Mission for Migrant Workers, an institution that serves Asian migrants, reported that in 2020, seven out of 10 migrants experienced ill treatment.
The Service Report is an annual document released by the Mission for Migrant Workers. It contains the demographics, working and living conditions, and the cases of its clients, as well as its projects and activities on that year. One out of 50 experienced rape or sexual harassment in 2019; in 2020, it’s three out of 50. Physical abuse in 2019 was three out of 100, while in 2020, it was 17 out of 100.
Moreover, 98 percent of MFMW’s clients experience long working hours.
“Working hours in Hong Kong is unregulated so, in general, migrant domestic workers are made to work for more than 11 hours per day,” Cynthia Abdon Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, said.
“It is alarming to be sure, but migrant domestic workers have been suffering from maltreatment even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference is that, now, more domestic workers are working for employers who are overly stressed with working from home. These domestic workers are also prevented from leaving the premises because of fears of COVID-19 infection. This cuts them off from their community, unable to know how to ask help and from whom,” Tellez said.
When asked for clarification on why these domestic workers contact the agency for help, and how it took them a long time before leaving, Tellez explained that migrant domestic workers’ only contact here is with their agency, especially since some of them are not allowed to go out.
“But since it is not in the interest of the agency to actually help MDWs, they wash their hands of the issues that MDWs face. Actually, agencies are complicit with these issues because there are such schemes as ‘Buy One, Take One (or Five).’ This means that employers pay a certain amount to the agencies, and if the employer doesn’t like the worker, the agency exchanges the worker for another one, or more. The agency earns nothing from this arrangement, which is why it is disinclined to help when the worker requests to change her employer,” Tellez said.
This is why they need all the help they can get, according to Tellez. “Abandoned by agencies, we assist them through their cases, providing temporary shelter, etc. Many of them leave their employers’ house with nothing but the clothes on their back. We provide them with necessities too. And since their contract was terminated, they need their visas extended, which cost HK$240 (US$30.90) every time, just so they can continue to attend to their cases to receive some form of justice.”
Tellez then appealed to the public to help MFMW in assisting domestic workers.
“MFMW is a small non-government institution mostly powered by volunteers. We serve migrants any time, anywhere. Kindly support us in our mission to help migrant workers however way possible,” she said.
All migrant domestic workers are required to live in their employer’s house. Imposed in 2003, the Hong Kong law states that all MDWs who started working in the city from that year onward are required by law to sleep where they work.
“As Hong Kong is very dense, the live-in requirement poses problems. Abuse has become more rampant. Also, since you live where you work, you are accessible to your employer 24 hours a day. And if you don’t get your day off? That means being accessible for seven days a week too… So this is forced labor, being forced to work on their supposed days off and during resting hours. Employers are not punished,” Dolores Balladares Pelaez, chairwoman of the largest alliance of Philippine organizations in Hong Kong, the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL-MIGRANTE-HK), said.
Pelaez also related the recent abuse cases to state abandonment. “Herlina, Uun, Putri, Selly, Eden: They were all left to the dogs by the agencies and by their governments. No government is checking on them. Is this not state abandonment? Is this not modern-day slavery?”
“It’s not just the employers. It’s the system that’s keeping migrant workers in this predicament. A typical migrant worker faces so many walls. Lack of opportunities in their home countries forces them to work abroad. They pay huge amounts to recruitment agencies to be able to work here,” Pelaez continued.
“Here, if they have problems with their employment, they tend to keep quiet because they often fear their contract will be terminated. Then, they are more likely to be accused as ‘job hoppers’ by the HK Immigration Department,” she explained.
“Job hopping” is defined as shifting from one employer to another due to the worker terminating the contract. The problem with this, according to Pelaez, is that the HK Immigration Department thinks that migrant domestic workers terminate their contracts because they are ‘choosy.’
“They do not want to terminate their contract, as this usually means going for months without an income. So they suffer silently. If they do go home, they face poverty. They need to pay a huge amount again to be able to work abroad, even if the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency policy for Household Service Workers is that applicants should pay zero agency fees. Which is why so many of them reach the breaking point before seeking help,” she added.
She continued, “All these bricks form walls that keep migrant workers in a prison, even if their only ‘crime’ is wanting to give their family the basic necessities.”
Pelaez also related that more and more migrants are getting so much stress over the current conditions. “It’s a problem, this social isolation. Aside from longer working hours, many migrant domestic workers are not allowed to meet their friends and take days off outside because their employers are under the notion that domestic workers are unhygienic,” she said.
Pelaez said that out of the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers tested for COVID-19, only 0.001% tested positive. There are also employers forbidding their domestic workers from getting tested or vaccinated. Fellow migrant workers fear losing their jobs.
“These abuse cases and COVID-19 issues are related. They are rooted in modern-day slavery present in Hong Kong and other places. It is the system that creates favorable conditions for employers to abuse workers. It’s the system that creates victims from the sending countries’ push to provide cheap labor overseas,” she reiterated.
“Given these walls, are we to give up? Of course not. Now, it is up to us to continue to fight together, and break down these walls,” Pelaez implored.
Walls are witnesses, sure. But they are also barriers. And for all that’s been said about walls, the point is to break them down. And in this time of uncertainty, it is what needs to be done. (RVO /