HONG KONG’S ‘MODERN-DAY SLAVES’ AND ERWIANA’S PLIGHT

 

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Photo shows maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, with both feet severely bruised as she was brought to hospital in Indonesia

Hong Kong officials were apparently stung and embarrassed by the series of critical reports by major local and international media about Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih who accused her 44-year-old female Chinese employer, surnamed Law, of repeatedly beating her up, resulting in several physical injuries to her face, hands and feet.

Being cited by respected US-based Time magazine as a city which hosts “modern-day slaves”, referring to  Indonesian maids, must have been truly embarrassing for Hong Kong. This is specially so because Hong Kong is ranked with New York, London and Tokyo as the world’s leading financial centers.

The government’s deep embarrassment over the Erwiana affair is quite easy to gauge – it moved with an intriguing and refreshing haste to address a controversial issue of great interest and concern to the local and international communities.

After just about a week of often critical local and international media reports about Erwiana’s heart-rending plight, Hong Kong officials acted swiftly and decisively.

The police stopped and arrested Erwiana’s employer at Hong Kong’s airport yesterday, January 20, preventing her from flying to Bangkok and leaving the city, according to a Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) report. In a related development, Hong Kong police and labor officers arrived yesterday in Indonesia to get Erwiana’s statement that will back up her complaint against Law for the physical injuries that she suffered after only eight months of work in Hong Kong.  

These two courses of action are very significant on at least two counts for Hong Kong’s 300,000-strong foreign domestic helper (FDH) community, comprised mainly of nationals from Indonesia and the Philippines.

First, Erwiana has not yet filed with the police any formal complaint Law. But in spite of this, the police proceeded to arrest her employer.

Second, the government has taken an unusual exception to Erwiana’s case by sending police and labor officers to Indonesia to get her statement that will presumably serve as evidence for wounding and possibly other cases that are likely to be filed in court against her employer. In the past 10 years or so, I don’t recall the government sending officers to the country of origin of an FDH for the purpose of building up a court case against an errant employer.

The government’s unusual moves are likely, in my view, to lead to eventual improvements in the protection of the rights and privileges of foreign domestics under Hong Kong laws. The extent of these improvements is anybody’s guess.

The fact that the physical abuses of Erwiana and several other Indonesian maids have gone largely unnoticed for months clearly highlight weaknesses in regulations covering the overall welfare of migrant workers in Hong Kong.

These weaknesses or loopholes are likely to prompt the government to undertake a critical review of the existing rules and regulations governing employers’ treatment of their foreign maids. After this review, I expect the government to make necessary amendments or changes in relevant laws in a bid to avoid a repetition of the stomach-wrenching physical abuses suffered by Erwiana.

A video footage and photos taken by Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper — http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/news/art/20140117/18596307 — show the extent of the brutality that Erwiana was subjected to.    

Hong Kong’s highest official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said today that the government is very much concerned with Erwiana’s case and that it has zero tolerance for violence against anyone in the community.

His statement heralds upcoming positive changes that are likely to benefit foreign domestics in Hong Kong.

Why so? Quite simple.

If the city’s most senior official has already taken personal interest in the plight of a particular foreign maid subjected to apparent inhumane treatment by her employer, this will undoubtedly  send a very strong and clear signal to different government agencies to adopt necessary measures, aimed at strengthening the protection and improving the welfare of foreign domestics.

Clearly, the Hong Kong government is more sensitive today than in previous years to the plight and needs of FDHs. Presumably, the government will be more open minded now than before to considering and adopting changes that will bolster protection and welfare of foreign domestics.

Now is a golden and rare opportunity for the Philippine, Indonesian and other concerned governments, as well as various FDH pressure groups, to ask Hong Kong officials to revisit various problematic issues that have prompted Amnesty International and other foreign groups, such as Time magazine, to criticize openly Leung’s administration for the hostile working conditions of foreign maids here.

These issues include the lack of maximum working hours for foreign maids, unlike in Canada and other Western countries and the discriminatory so-called “two-week” rule which applies to out-of-job foreign maids but not to foreign white-collar workers.

Another major issue is the exorbitant service fee of up to HK$40,000 that unscrupulous employment agencies charge on Canada-bound foreign maids, mostly Filipinos, in direct and serious violation of the Employment Agencies Administration’s (EAA) rule that these agencies can only charge 10 per cent of one month’s salary in the country of destination of outbound maids. Recruiters have operated with impunity for years and continue to victimize victims, many of whom are either unaware of the government’s regulations or gullible to believe recruiters’ sweet promises of high-paying but non-existent jobs in Canada, Russia and other countries in Europe.  

NOTES:

* For more info about the subject above and other Hong Kong issues, please visit our Facebook page – Pinoy Life on RTHK

* To listen to “Pinoy Life”, a radio program aired every Sunday at 4-6 pm on Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), please use either one of two options:

1. If using a mobile phone or tablet, go to PlayStore, download “TuneIn Radio” free app, choose Hong Kong under “Location” and double click RTHK Radio 3 (with red & black icon)

2. If using a radio set, go to MW 567 in the AM channel

 

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