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HONG KONG, 12 May 2017:
Domestic workers in Hong Kong are being forced to sleep in toilets, tiny cubbyholes, and on balconies, activists found in an investigation that uncovered the “appalling” living conditions of maids in the wealthy financial hub.
In the city that employs 350,000 maids, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, three out of five domestic workers are made to live in unsuitable accommodation that sometimes threatens their health and safety, said rights group Mission for Migrant Wokers (MFMW).
In a survey of 3,000 maids, MFMW found 43% of the respondents said they do not have their own room and were asked to sleep in places including storage rooms, kitchens, toilets, basements, closets and on balconies.
Photos collected from the domestic helpers showed shocking examples. In one case, a domestic worker was made to sleep in a cubbyhole above the refrigerator and microwave oven. Another was forced to sleep in a cubbyhole over a shower.
Another helper slept in a tiny, 1.2m-high room built on a balcony, next to the laundry area.
“It is appalling we are allowed to do this to a domestic worker. This is modern-day slavery,” said lead researcher Norman Uy Carnay.
“Most of this accommodation doesn’t even approach basic human decency. Hong Kong is a world-class city, it shames Hong Kong to have this kind of treatment of its migrant domestic workers.”
Carnay said maids should be given suitable accommodation even if they are in space-scarce Hong Kong, where sky-high property prices make housing unaffordable for many of the city’s seven million residents.
In an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Hong Kong’s Labour Department urged maids to lodge complaints and said employers can face action if they fail to provide suitable accommodation.
Asked whether sleeping in kitchens or toilets is acceptable, the department said it was “not feasible” to define what is suitable accommodation.
Of the 57% of domestic workers surveyed with their own room, one-third said their quarters also doubles as a storage area, space for laundry, a study or a room for pets, MFMW said. 14% of the 3,000 polled said they have no ready access to toilets.
Domestic helpers said they had no choice but to accept the conditions.
“We agree because we need to earn money. If we disagree, of course, we’re sent to the agency or we’re sent to go back home, right?” one unidentified maid was quoted by MFMW as saying.
Carnay urged Hong Kong to outlaw unsuitable accommodation and abolish rules that make it mandatory for maids to live with their employers.
At present, the rules only say employers must not force maids to sleep on beds in the corridor with little privacy, or to share a room with an adult of the opposite sex.
Although domestic workers generally have better protection in Hong Kong than in other parts of Asia, mistreatment in the city has come under scrutiny since the 2014 case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid beaten by her employer and burned with boiling water.
Indonesia maids now get cash offer to work abroad
People smugglers are increasingly paying rural Indonesians cash to persuade them to work abroad as maids – unlike in the past when women had to pay exorbitant fees to secure the jobs, campaigners said.
The change has been driven in part by demand for Indonesian domestic helpers. The payments are also a way of persuading women’s families, who may be reluctant to let them go after a series of high-profile Indonesian maid abuse cases abroad.
Indonesia is a major source of domestic workers for places such as Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Middle East. Most women wanting the overseas jobs used to have to pay hundreds of dollars to secure a placement through an agent.
However, rights groups said in recent years it has become common for smugglers to offer women or their families 2-9 million rupiah to get them to work abroad.
“It is disguised as pocket money,” said Endang Susilowati, founder of the Panca Karsa Foundation in West Nusa Tenggara province, one of the areas in Indonesia that sends the most maids abroad.
“These cash payments are used as an incentive for them to go abroad,” said Susilowati, whose foundation helps migrant workers.
The cost of hiring an Indonesian maid remains relatively low, while countries like the Philippines that have traditionally sent maids abroad have been demanding higher salaries and greater protection for their citizens.
Mulyadi, from rights group Migrant Care, said the cash incentives trend has accelerated after Indonesia in 2015 banned new maids from going to the Middle East after a string of abuse cases.
The ban has not stopped the flow of women heading to the region, but it has forced traffickers to find ways around the prohibition, including offering cash.
“People are more aware of issues like labour exploitation now, so cash is offered,” said Mulyadi, who uses one name. “It is a way to get the family’s consent, but essentially it is a way to bribe them to say yes.”
But Mulyadi said the cash upfront is often an advance that is deducted from the maids’ monthly salaries for up to six months – something they are not told when they accept it.
Campaigners say many women are tricked and become trafficking victims as they are not told they are to become maids when they are sent abroad. In some cases they end up exploited, overworked and underpaid.
More than half of the 21 million victims of forced labour globally are found in Asia Pacific, trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave, according to the International Labour Organisation.
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