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.
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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.
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