One in six domestic workers in HK in forced labor: study

March 15, 2016 18:59
Rights groups and activists say Hong Kong should take more action to ensure the well-being of migrant domestic workers. Photo: EJ Insight

A study has suggested that one in six migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong is a victim of forced labor and that a significant proportion of such workers may have been trafficked.

About 17 percent of MDWs surveyed fulfilled the criteria to be counted as victims of forced labor, according to Justice Centre Hong Kong, a non-profit human rights organization in the city.

Extrapolated to the general population of 336,600 registered MDWs in Hong Kong, it suggests that over 50,000 migrant domestic workers in the city may be in forced labor, the rights group said on Tuesday.

Of those in forced labor, the study found that 14 percent - 1 in 7 of those in forced labor - were trafficked.

MDWs from Indonesia are 70.5 percent more likely to be in forced labor than workers from other countries of origin.

For its survey, Justice Centre interviewed 1,003 MDWs in Hong Kong between April and May last year.

Two thirds of MDWs surveyed show strong signs of exploitation but are not in forced labor, while about 11.3 percent show medium signs of exploitation.

Only 5.4 percent of MDWs surveyed did not show any signs of exploitation, according to a report released by the Justice Centre.

The average working hours among all respondents was more than 70 hours a week. Over one-third of respondents were not given a full 24-hour rest period per week as per the requirement under Hong Kong law.

"The survey findings provide much-needed evidence to push for policy and legislative change around forced labor, human trafficking and domestic worker rights in Hong Kong. Hong Kong must come clean and acknowledge these problems; it can no longer afford to simply sweep them under the carpet," said Piya Muqit, executive director of Justice Centre.

The rights group called on the Hong Kong government to take action to address the underlying issues behind the problems identified in the report.

"Forced labor does not always involve physical violence; there are many tools of coercion and deception," Victoria Wisniewski Otero, co-author of the report and Advocacy and Campaigns Manager at Justice Centre Hong Kong, said at a media briefing Tuesday.

"The findings show that many MDWs’ rights – as workers and human beings – are not being respected and protected. Varying degrees of exploitation – from minor labor offences to forced labor – are all too commonplace," she said.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said the government should take measures to ensure that domestic workers work safely and happily in Hong Kong.

Government officials should directly talk to the home countries of incoming domestic workers in order to set up systems to trim down agency fees, Lau said.

She also called for the establishment of an official channel for employers and domestic workers to settle their disputes.

Heavy debt

About 35 percent of all respondents had debt-to-income ratios equal to or in excess of 30 percent of their reported annual income, according to the Justice Centre survey. 

These MDWs are six times more likely to be in forced labor than MDWs with lower debt levels.

"Forced labor is not only about the employee-employer relationship. In fact, our study shows that excessive recruitment debt was the biggest predictor of whether someone would be vulnerable to forced labor," Wisniewski Otero said.

Unscrupulous recruitment and placement agencies, brokers and moneylenders are contributing to the problem.

Lack of adequate regulation and the absence of stiff penalties on the agencies that overcharge is having a detrimental impact on MDWs, she added.

Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, said Hong Kong must change its law to ensure that MDWs will be protected if they file cases against their employers.

Lestari said the penalty for those who abuse their domestic helpers should be increased. She noted that the abusive former employer of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was only sentenced to six years in jail. 

Doris Lee, founder and chair of Open Door, an association of Hong Kong employers and citizens which aims to promote support for domestic workers' rights, said the law should be amended to regulate the agency companies.

Leo Tang Kin-wa, organizing secretary of Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, said the government should provide more education to MDWs so that they are aware of their legal rights in the city.

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