24 October 2016
Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong have sorry tales to tell, says a rights group. The photo shown here is a representative image. Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani
Foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong have sorry tales to tell, says a rights group. The photo shown here is a representative image. Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani

Rights group lays out case studies on ‘forced labor’ victims

In a report titled “Coming Clean”, rights group Justice Centre laid out three real-life cases to illustrate how some migrant domestic workers (MDWs) are in forced labor in Hong Kong.

The report estimates that one in six MDWs in Hong Kong are victims of forced labor, suggesting that as many as 50,000 workers currently in the city have sorry tales to tell.

In the three case studies listed below, the real names and personal information of the MDWs have been changed to protect their identities.

(1) Indah, 29, from Indonesia

Indah is a 29-year-old Indonesian woman who has finished high school and is married with children. She has worked in Hong Kong for seven years with three different employers. She remits around 50 percent of her monthly salary back home.

She secured her current job through a Hong Kong employment agency and paid HK$7,500. This covered placement fees, as well as paying for food and lodging in Hong Kong while waiting for her new job and for a visa run to and from Macau. Because of the recruitment debt she has incurred, Indah says she feels she has no choice but to keep working. In the past, she has had to take on other jobs to pay off her previous recruitment debts. 

While she is paid the minimum allowable wage (HK$4,110 at the time of survey), she only receives HK$100 per month as food allowance (the minimum allowable food allowance was HK$964 at time of survey). She works on average 20 hours a day and her employer regularly wakes her during the night to work. On her mandated one-day off per week, she has to work before and after she leaves the house. Her employer takes away her time off work if she does something wrong.

The employer keeps her passport and Indah is unable to access it. The employer also forces her to work for other people and she is not allowed to practice her religion. But Indah doesn’t think she can quit her job because she believes all work is like this in Hong Kong.

(2) Mary, 26, Philippines

Mary is a 26-year-old, college-educated single woman from a medium-sized city in the Philippines who decided to become a MDW to help her family repay their debts.

She came to Hong Kong in 2014 and is still working on her first contract. She sends at least 30 percent of her salary home as remittances to four members of her family, who are dependent on them. A broker in the Philippines helped her arrange almost all the aspects of her job, and she feels
this broker took advantage of her difficult situation as she borrowed money from the broker to help pay for the costs of securing the job while she was still in the Philippines.

On her arrival in Hong Kong, she borrowed more money from a finance company to cover the rest of her costs. She did not disclose to Justice Centre’s research team what she paid to either the broker or the finance company in Hong Kong. She did not understand the terms of the loan agreement from the finance company at the time she signed it, and she was not given a copy afterwards. Mary feels she has no choice but to keep working in Hong Kong because of the amount of money she has paid to secure her job.

Before she left the Philippines, Mary spent time in a recruitment training facility. She was not allowed to leave the premises and her passport and ID were confiscated. She was physically and sexually abused at the training facility and her family was threatened. Staff at the training facility also told her not to go to the Hong Kong authorities or her consulate if she ever had a problem, and they did not give her any information about her rights as a MDW in Hong Kong.

She could read and understand the employment contract she signed, but was not given enough time to go through it in detail. Following her experiences in the training facility, Mary decided that she did not want to become a MDW, but she felt compelled to go because of the debt she had accumulated.

Once in Hong Kong, Mary discovered that her living conditions, welfare and benefits, and holidays were worse than what the staff at the recruitment training facility and the broker had told her. And her weekly rest hours were much worse. She has to share a room with another worker and feels that her living conditions are overcrowded with no privacy. She works 14 hours a day.

She is awarded her weekly rest day but must work before and after she takes her rest. Her employer also threatens to deduct her salary and cut off her access to the Internet and the house phone. Although she is unhappy about her working conditions, Mary doesn’t feel she can terminate her contract because she is still in debt. To repay the loans more quickly, Mary has done other work in Hong Kong.

(3) Amalia, 28, Indonesia

Amalia is a high-school educated 28-year-old woman who is married without children and hails from a rural area in Indonesia. She has been working in Hong Kong for almost four years and has had three different employers. She sends approximately 50 percent of her salary home in remittances each month. She found her current job through a private recruitment company after she returned to Indonesia from Hong Kong upon terminating her previous contract.

She paid for her recruitment costs by taking out a loan with a finance company after she got to Hong Kong and paid HK$15,576 in total. She expected to pay money to secure her current contract and to take out a loan, but she was not given a copy of the loan agreement. Although she had worked in Hong Kong before, Amalia’s recruitment agency made her attend a recruitment training facility again before she left Indonesia. Her passport was confiscated and she was not free to leave the facility, even when she was not in classes or training.

In her current job, Amalia works 14 hours a day and is only given a day off every three weeks. Her employer compensates her for working on her rest days but she does not feel she has a real choice to say no to working on her day off. She is paid HK$4,010 a month but her employer does not pay for all her work-related transport costs.

Amalia does not have her own room and sleeps in the kitchen. If she does something that upsets her employer, the employer punishes her by taking away her phone and cutting off her access to the Internet and the home phone. She also yells and screams at Amalia and uses degrading language. Amalia’s employer restricts her movement outside of the house and does not allow her to practice her religion.

Amalia would like to quit her job, but her employment agency has told her that she cannot leave until she pays off her debt. She also believes that her employment agency would deduct her future salary as punishment if she leaves.

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Domestic workers often find that they can’t leave their jobs despite difficult conditions, as the workers are in heavy debt. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani

Some domestic workers need to take out loans to pay their agency fees. Photo: Xyza Cruz Bacani

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