Beaten and Exploited, Indonesian Maids Are Hong Kong’s ‘Modern-Day Slaves’

Another case of brutal mistreatment points to a systemic failure to protect domestic workers

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Anthony Wallace AFP / Getty Images

A foreign domestic helper holds a placard as she takes part in a May Day rally in Hong Kong on May 1, 2013.

When Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih departed from Hong Kong last Friday, she left a nightmare behind her. Eight months of alleged beatings by her employer had disfigured the 23-year-old so badly she was barely recognizable. A gaunt, pockmarked face with chipped teeth had replaced her once smooth, girlish features. Her feet, scalded with hot water, were black in color and had open sores.

Her case is another damning instance of the abuses faced by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Foreign maids have been a ubiquitous feature of Hong Kong life since the 1970s, when the city’s economy began to boom. Local women entered the labor force on a large scale and hired domestic workers from the Philippines, and subsequently Indonesia and Thailand, to keep households running.

After decades of toiling away in the anonymous confines of Hong Kong’s high-rise homes, domestic helpers, now numbering around 300,000, are making their voices heard more effectively, campaigning for better working conditions, higher wages and entitlement to permanent residency.

(MORE: Indonesia Pushes for Better Migrant-Worker Protection)

True, legal protections are better in Hong Kong than in the Middle East and other East Asian countries that are large markets for foreign domestic workers, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore. But helpers in Hong Kong are nonetheless vulnerable and often defenseless once disaster strikes. A 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers survey found that 18% of migrant domestic workers in the city had been physically abused. The Indonesian maid Kartika Puspitasari became a cause célèbre last summer, when her two-year-long torture in the hands of a sadistic couple was made public. The revelation of Erwiana’s ordeal throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the treatment of domestic workers yet again.

Unable to walk when she arrived home, Erwiana needed the help of a fellow domestic worker she met at Hong Kong International Airport. Five days after arrival, she is still in hospital, but her uncle Shomat tells TIME she is doing better. “We were shocked, and we feel pained seeing her in this condition,” he says.

(MORE: Hong Kong Employer May Have Tortured Second Indonesian Maid)

If she is lucky, Erwiana will get justice. Her family says they are determined to seek legal action against her former employer, and the Indonesian government has pledged to provide a lawyer for her. Other Indonesians, however, may never get redress. In a November report, Amnesty International singled out Indonesians as particularly vulnerable in Hong Kong. Unlike Filipinas, the other major group of domestic helpers in Hong Kong, Indonesians are required to find employment through recruitment agencies. These agencies are supposed to provide them with training, set up their contracts and arrange their visas. However, Amnesty found that the agencies failed to adequately represent the interests of women on their books.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih is being tended to at a hospital in central Java on January 15. Unable to walk after eight months of being physically abused by her employers in Hong Kong, the 23-year-old returned to Indonesia five days earlier with the help of a fellow domestic worker.

Indonesian Migrant Workers Union

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih is being tended to at a hospital in Sragen, Indonesia, on Jan. 15, 2014. Unable to walk after months of being physically abused by her employers in Hong Kong, the 23-year-old returned to Indonesia five days earlier with the help of a fellow domestic worker

Ina, an Indonesian helper who prefers to be known by her first name, was brusquely awakened and thrown out of her employer’s house one night. “I spent the night crying in the lobby,” she says. “I was so surprised.”

Before she left, she was made to sign a document, which she didn’t understand. In the morning, she went to the only place she could think of, the agency that had recruited her, and they explained to her that she had just waived her right to outstanding salary and airfare home. But instead of giving her legal advice on how to bring her employer to court, agency staff merely scolded her and reminded her that she still owed them money.

“From the moment the women are tricked into signing up for work in Hong Kong, they are trapped in a cycle of exploitation with cases that amounts to modern-day slavery,” says the author of the Amnesty report, Norma Kang Muico.

Debt is the main tool agencies use to keep a grip on their workers. Women are charged vastly inflated sums — which could reach about $2,700 or five times the minimum monthly wage, above the maximum legal limits set by Hong Kong and Jakarta — for training and other “services,” with their salaries deducted until the fees are repaid. Responding to the increasing number of cases of abuse, the Indonesian government — only too aware of the value to the economy of the remittances made by overseas workers — has come up with a plan to export skilled laborers such as cooks, housekeepers, nannies or caregivers from 2017 on, reasoning that such professionals will be less vulnerable to exploitation than the unskilled women now making up much of the domestic-worker corps.

(MORE: In Hong Kong, a Setback for Domestic-Worker Rights)

However, Eni Lestari, chairperson of the Hong Kong–based International Migrants Alliance, says that this is unlikely to bring about change, since agencies will still be in charge of the new training programs. “The government wants to export migrant workers, but they don’t want to do it on their own, so they outsource it to another party,” she says.

To ensure their repayments, the agencies typically insist that employees withstand difficult circumstances. This happened to both Ina and Erwiana, who made distressed calls regarding their abuse. Even if the contract is for some reason terminated, it is still a win-win situation for the agency. Since Hong Kong law only permits domestic workers to stay without employment for two weeks, the women are forced back to the agencies to get a new contract.

Several U.N. committees — including the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the U.N. Human Rights Committee — have urged Hong Kong to review or repeal this two-week restriction, as well as the law requiring domestic workers to live with their employers, which is seen as putting the women at risk of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. But the Hong Kong government claims that it is protecting its own constituency — local employers. It says that opportunistic maids leave employers they are not satisfied with, saddling them with the headache of finding a new maid as well as the additional fee that every new contract incurs.

At Bethune House, an organization in Hong Kong that provides shelter and legal services to domestic workers in distress, project coordinator Esther Bangcawayan receives new women, and hears more stories of abuse, almost every day.

“There is a sense here [among employers] that ‘I brought my house worker here, I want to maximize her,’” says Bangcawayan. “People need to realize that people are people, not commodities.”

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok / Hong Kong

102 comments
GavinX
GavinX

The beating is condemnable, but that's it. Having worked a long time does not entitled anyone to higher wages or permanent residency. The last thing HK's demographic wants is to let in poor, uneducated immigrants from Indonesia.

lenny
lenny

We treated our maid like family.  She goes to restaurants with us and can order whatever she wants.  She has her own room and bathroom.  We treat her with great respect and give her presents often.  She lost our Alzheimer afflicted mother who is her sole job to watch by taking her out to do her own errands and leaving our mom unattended.  We just politely asked her to be more careful and we will give her extra time off to take care of her own errands.  She eventually went and borrowed all kinds of money so the collection agencies showed up at our mom's flat and called day and night.  Our maid is from Indonesia.  We are Hongkongers.


I think there are good maids and bad ones, and similarly, good employers and bad employers.  It's a pity that there is not a system that can match up the right people with each other.  We desperately need a cantonese speaking nice maid for our mother and have not been able to find one.

Richcoral
Richcoral

I wish TIME will follow the story and clear Hong Kong people's name by reporting that the abuser is actually a newly immigrated mainland Chinese instead of a born-and-bred Hongkonger. She also reportedly has mental problems (which I cannot deny seeing what she has done). A lot of Hong Kong people spend so much of their time workinjg that they may not even get to see their helpers often and many employers I know actually treat the domestic helpers (we seldom use "maids") very nicely with respect.


Still, Indonesian helpers are known to be less educated than Filipino helpers in Hong Kong. They are less articulate in Cantonese or sometimes even English, which is why it is hard for them to ask for help when abused. I believe these agencies should be better regulated as they are the only ones the helpers trust and can turn to. In this case, the agency falsified Erwiana's age so she could work in Hong Kong - the sign of an irresponsible agency.

YukimuraDoi
YukimuraDoi

I think this report should state that the offender of this incidence actually comes from People Republic of China rather than from Hong Kong. Some Real Hong Kong people may be harsh employers, but they won't hit house maiden!

chuckster007
chuckster007

Evil employer arrested trying to leave Hong Kong. Finally FFS.



http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/a...she-tries-flee

the 44-year-old maid employer tried to leave the city and was intercepted by police.

The woman, her husband and two teenage children are believed to have moved out of their flat at Beverly Gardens in Tseung Kwan O after the alleged beating and torture came to light on January 12.

phillis21
phillis21

I live in Hong Kong and this disgusts me. Yes helpers do get treated badly by many peiople here, and it has to stop.


The HK governemt does nothing. Start prosecuting these horrid employers with lenghty jail sentences and we will see things improve. Fining the rich arrogant locals here does nothing.


It is time the HK SAR started taking this seriously and made an example of offenders.

Alejandro79
Alejandro79

Terrible.. Let's also not forget the exact same type of modern slavery takes place in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi arabia, where people from southern Asia are exploited to build even more skyscrapers, shopping malls and soccer stadiums for the world cup. Shame really, the UN should act, or boycot these places

dr1056
dr1056

To all domestic workers whether you're Indonesian, Fillipino and regardless of your race, if you ever do face such domestic violence report this to your agency and file this report to the Hong Kong police department anonymously or not, you do not have to suffer such ignorant behavior and I'm sure their is another better employer out their that will treat you better.                                 Maids are not slaves, they are hard working, honest, respectful and reliable people who should as standard make a living.

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

Hongkong has become propserous but the people are still poor interms of their conduct. Freedoms and fair play are concepts that have not kept up with increasing wealth

NoraRowley
NoraRowley

When materialism rather than humanism matters most.

happyfish
happyfish

situation so bad, and yet,  300,000 still come.   send them back home, any poverty/abuse don't get reported

GlenDeGelnor
GlenDeGelnor

Time for England to take this country back. With force if needed.

Wai-Man-Choi
Wai-Man-Choi

Against Abuse, Against Ethnic Conflict and Genocide 反虐待 反種族衝突 反種族屠殺

It has occurred in Taiwan, bad Indonesia maids abused  her aged employer, even abused her employer's baby as employer was leaving for office!

永遠被封殺的鐵證歷史
1998年印尼排華大屠殺事件
中國人命傷亡難以估計!
這條數點計?

http://blog.renren.com/share/255179106/7103239039

Read more: Exploited Indonesian Maids Are Hong Kong's 'Modern-Day Slaves' | TIME.com http://world.time.com/2014/01/15/beaten-and-exploited-indonesian-maids-are-hong-kongs-modern-day-slaves/#ixzz2qbynoP6v

WawiedWidiyo
WawiedWidiyo

Big problem for indonesia leader to solve .


DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

"“People need to realize that people are people, not commodities.”

The trouble is, no one ever realizes that, and that includes, to some degree, pretty much every employer in every country everywhere.

melancholicmess
melancholicmess

This is a big problem in South East Asia where many from Philippines and Indonesia are forced to travel to economically wealthy countries like Hong Kong and Singapore to work as domestic helpers. Whilst the employees from the Philippines are better equipped in their knowledge of their rights, the Indonesians are unfortunately susceptible to fraud from their own people. The DH agencies hiring them in their own land should be the ones helping them and ensuring that they know their rights and equipping them with the right information on where to go and what to do if something untoward happens to them.There is usually a training period for these helpers before they are assigned to their various employments and during those training's, there should be an extensive course about this. Also, the domestic helpers are made to fear unemployment and are threatened with scenario's of being fired and not being able to find another job so most of them endure those mistreatment's.

As much as it is the fault of the heartless employers (who find a convenient punching bag in their helpers), it is also the fault of the agencies. They should remember that even though they are running a business, these are human beings involved. 

niallbuck
niallbuck

This is going on because in the eyes of the law, foreign domestic helpers have very little rights in HK. They are supposed to have 1 day off a week but many don't (and are given a measly HK$100 to work the extra day); there are no limits on working hours and many work from dawn to dusk - I've seen helpers washing cars at 6.30am and 11pm (what is it with some HK people and getting their car washed everyday??); they get paid pittance; have only two weeks to find new work if contract is terminated; have no right to residency although some have been in HK 20-30 yrs. The list goes on. If the law says they are not worthy then don't be surprised when the scum of society feels fit to treat them the same. Some of the more ignorant comments from locals I have seen on other forums includes 'they're not all angels' and 'this is an Indonesian problem, not HK'. Considering the complete lack of action on behalf of the HK government then one can only assume they feel the same. You have to consider all those in power will have helpers (likely to be more than 1, plus a driver) and are probably happy with the status quo. Why rock the boat? One has to ask who audits the recruitment agencies, if anyone? Are spot checks carried out on properties who employ domestic helpers to see of they are actually living there, what the conditions are like etc. Are you kidding me?? That will just expose the problem even more and they might have to get off their asses and do something about it. It's good that Time and other international publications are highlighting this issue because it might actually embarrass the lawmakers into taking action, but I won't hold my breath.  

RebeccaFerry
RebeccaFerry

OMG!  this is a barbaric act  that needs to address and put those employer to to jail,!!

kalman133
kalman133

"18% of maid migrant domestic workers have been abused" the report says. Out of 300k that would mean 54,000 human beings are enduring physical tortures. And the locals think it is just a minority. Hong Kong is really just bunch of immoral sadists masquerading as enlightened progressive nation. You think Saudi Arabia is hell ? Try Hong Kong.

GWSingapore
GWSingapore

@lenny These types of arguments are very similar to how many Confederate Americans used to justify slavery.  "We always treated our colored folks well..."  It is not a question of how well or poorly you treat your maid, it is a moral question of whether the indebted servitude is an appropriate employment model.

chuckster007
chuckster007

@Richcoral  You are just another moron trying to push the blame on Mainlanders who are in fact also Chinese just like HK people so dont even see any difference. 


The abuser as from the The HK Standard news paper was born in HK and lives in HK.


"The lawyer said Lo was born in Hong Kong, has no criminal record and needs to assist her 17-year- old son to prepare for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education."


http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=30&art_id=141822&sid=41390075&con_type=3


Indonesian helpers may be less educated but majority of them speak Cantonese more than the Filipino helpers. Go meet some maids and find out FFS. 

chuckster007
chuckster007

@YukimuraDoi This is where you are WRONG. The most recent case of Helper abuse was by a HK Couple, who mistreated their Indonesian Helper, tied her up and went on holiday, made the helper wear Diapers, worked 18 hrs a day etc. 


They were jailed for over 5 years each. Go search for the news. 

flpompano
flpompano

@sridhar.sid This happens to people who have no class and it's the same across the globe. It has little to do with wealth because it's incredibly inexpensive to have a maid in Hong Kong. These people live in a community that is somewhat similar to an affordable housing project. 

NievesConQueso
NievesConQueso

@GlenDeGelnor ohhh you poor old fish and chip, still living in the past and can't admit that the UK is done. Before you use any force, learn how to cook and fix you miserable economy, dental practice and you OWN SLAVERY ISSUE! 

By the way, thank you for teaching HK people about slavery, they sure learn it well from the ugly Brits. 

phillis21
phillis21

@GlenDeGelnor you seriously thing they were treated better then? I think not. I have been here 30 years & nothing has changed on this front.

journalist
journalist

@Wai-Man-Choi regarding this problem. It did not happen for the Chinese people only. But also the christian. However, you said that Indonesian maid in Taiwan abused her employer's baby? the sound is so weird because Indonesian workers in Taiwan are working as the care taker and in the fabric (formal and non formal sector). When they are baby sitter it means that there is human trafficking. The regulation in Taiwan is only for the care taker and formal working (work in the fabric). So...?????????? 

Keely.kuk
Keely.kuk

@Wai-Man-Choi are you retarded? domestic helpers are not to be blamed for historical slaughters. Cut that crap with chinese patriotism and racist hatred. you can't blame an individual or a small group of them to bear the countries crime. 

danielhui
danielhui

I am a Hongkonger and I feel very sick that you are trying to justify the ill-treatment of the Indonesian domestic helpers with the anti-Chinese tragedy in Indonesia 1998. These domestic helpers, who has to bear the loneliness working away from their home country, to earn a better living for their families, are our good friends that together with us contributed to the prosperity of Hong Kong.They deserve a fair treatment from Hong Kong!

HopeforJustice
HopeforJustice

@why  Thanks for throwing out some history for us but if you think it's ok to abuse an other human because of their race and their history then you should take a lesson in morality. No one should ever be treated this way. If this poor girl was your daughter how would you feel!? 

GuoLiang
GuoLiang

@DeweySayenoff 

The real trouble is people don't seem to realize that people are in fact, commodities.

PhoebeH
PhoebeH

@kalman133 So you think that they actually managed to survey 300000 domestic migrant workers?! Doubtful I'd say.



GongLeoi
GongLeoi

@kalman133 Hong Kong isn't a nation, and we certainly have never professed to being 'progressive' -- it's a very conservative society which proclaims that conservatism and 'respect for tradition' proudly. But nice try. 

NoraRowley
NoraRowley

@dr1056 @NoraRowley My opinion is that among all the societal factors that influence brutal abusive domestic worker enslavement/trafficking- I am pointing out the global factor, far too often, is that the appearance of material wealth is a societal and individual goal rather than treating others as the equal human beings they are, i.e. with compassionate understanding.  Those who step on other human beings, often have the belief or excuse that the abused deserve the abuse or the abuser is defending their rights.


flpompano
flpompano

@phillis21 I think it's getting worse because of the influx of Mainland Chinese immigrants.

MarkJoe
MarkJoe

@GuoLiang @melancholicmess Calling the Indonesians "slaves" is an insult to the real slaves who were sold and shipped like cargo from Africa across the Atlantic.  Of course, what else to expect from a pretend-news outlet like TIME.  Only reading this garbage only because GOOG News redirected me here.

liuyihui19
liuyihui19

@GuoLiang oh yea and these uneducated, poor females are the ones making the horrible decisions in parliament. 

AbbySmith
AbbySmith

@PhoebeH What you're talking about is a census. I'm sure they didn't even try to do that, because it's obviously impossible, but they can get a pretty accurate survey using random sampling techniques.

dr1056
dr1056

@NoraRowley@dr1056 I believe it is called ignorance, one of the original purpose of employing foreign domestic maids was to provide them the opportunity of better standards of living through better income and to help them find their way out of poverty.  This especially relates to most who came from poorer backgrounds and most of them have been able to safe up money as part of their wages to provide for their family with money over seas and to build up their own houses back in their country.  Even though with the existence of law enforcement in place and the justice system, unfortunately for some, there are still the minority of rogue employers who may choose to go against the law and agreement to exploit others i.e the misuse and abuse of domestic workers for their own satisfaction and personal gains.  This is an inevitable part of reality which affects every countries which you should have already understand such as with the case of past and modern: terrorism, genocide, natural disasters and criminal activities. 

ZenGalacticore
ZenGalacticore

@MarkJoe Slavery had been with the human race since at least late Neolithic times, not just the Americas via the Atlantic from Africa from circa 1500 to 1835. Ancient Assyria, Egypt, Arabia, the Romans, all had slavery.

kalman133
kalman133

@GongLeoiThat "18% of all domestic workers are abused" bit is something I took from the story above. Isn't that a fact ? One fifth of migrants workers will go home, if they go home, bruised and bleeding with fractured bones and skin peeling. Must be a hobby they have to throw boiling water to vulnerable people. 

It is not that you don't like my statements. You just don't like reality.

GongLeoi
GongLeoi

I work to improve our conditions here, and I am certainly not blind to the faults -- nor do I misrepresent them so maliciously, as you do above. Criticism is required, but criticism should be based on fact.