When Tai Chi-wai and Catherine Au Yuk-Shan were jailed for torturing their maid in September, 2013, the shocking case made international headlines. Over two years, they repeatedly assaulted Kartika Puspitasari, beating her with a bicycle chain, scalding her face with a hot iron and making her wear a diaper… In sentencing the pair, Judge So Wai-tak insisted that the court’s decision would “send a clear message that every worker is protected by the laws”... However, this remains far from reality as Hong Kong law discourages and discriminates against any helper brave enough to speak out.
Foreign domestic workers are unique in that they must live with their employer and Hong Kong’s immigration law allows them only two weeks to find a new contract if they are fired or quit. Both the ‘two-week’ and ‘live-in’ rules are unfair, discriminatory and prevent helpers from escaping abusive situations like Kartika’s. Coupled with often excessive working hours and agency fees, many of Hong Kong’s 311,844 (May, 2013) domestic workers find themselves completely trapped when things go wrong.
• Abuse epidemic behind closed doors: The majority of helpers in Hong Kong are abused in some manner. A 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers survey found that 58% of workers had faced verbal abuse, 18% had suffered physical abuse and 6% had been sexually abused. The ‘two-week’ rule, and the fact helpers must live with their employers, makes it unlikely they will report or leave abusive situations, particularly when there is an obligation to send money home or repay debts to agencies.
• Hong Kong internationally condemned – International labour bodies and rights organisations have called for the abolition of HK’s ‘two-week’ rule for over a decade. In 2006, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (to which Hong Kong is a signatory) claimed the rule pushes helpers “to accept employment which may have unfair or abusive terms and conditions in order to stay in Hong Kong“. In 2013, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said in a report (pg.5) that Hong Kong should take steps to “repeal” the rule to “address discrimination and abuse against migrant domestic workers as a consequence of this rule“. The UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have also called for its repeal alongside NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam.
• Hong Kong violates international standards: The archaic ‘two-week’ rule violates the 1975 ILO recommendations (article 30, 31) for migrant workers which states that loss of “employment should not in itself imply the withdrawal of [a migrant worker’s] residence” and that migrant workers should be “allowed sufficient time to find alternative employment” with residence “extended accordingly.” Meanwhile, both the ‘live in’ and ‘two-week’ rules violate the 2011 ILO Convention on Domestic Workers, which Hong Kong is yet to sign.
• Helpers pressured to settle: Helpers, who can never attain permanent residency and have separate queuing sections at border controls and Immigration Tower, must return home if they cannot secure a new contract. Not only does this incur more costs and fees from agents but the short period given to find a new employer means helpers are under pressure to sign the first one available to them. A 2007 ILO-backed report (pg.81) found that this robbed helpers of the right to secure a minimum wage or favourable employer.
• Gov’t admits ‘2 weeks’ impossible: HK’s Immigration Department accepted, in a letter to Amnesty International (pg. 75) that processing an application for a change of employer takes “about 4-6 weeks” once “all necessary documents” are received. This is much longer than the 2 weeks allowed, forcing many workers to leave the territory until Immigration approves their paperwork.
• ‘2 weeks’ a barrier to justice: As a Labour Tribunal case takes at least two months to process, helpers who escape abuse find it difficult to seek justice (Amnesty report, pg.11). To remain in the city, a helper would need to apply for a visa extension (costing HK$160 / US$21 per fortnight), during which time helpers cannot work (pg.83). Each would also have to pay for private food and shelter. A paper (pg.110) by the Queensland Law Student Review stated that “the ‘two-week rule’ can pose significant practical obstacles to… redress in the courts“, discouraging those who feel they have a case against their employers.
• ‘Live-in’ law an affront to dignity: Despite contract rules promising ‘suitable accommodation’ and ‘reasonable privacy’, a 2012 survey by Mission for Migrant Workers (pg.6) found that 30% of helpers sleep in kitchens, corridors, storage rooms or with employers or their children. 25% stated that they feel they have no privacy (pg.9) with an equal number complaining they felt “unsafe” (pg.11). 20% reported that their employer had installed CCTV (pg.9). 35% of helpers would prefer to ‘live out’, if they could (pg.17). The rule robs helpers of privacy, personal space and rest time, it enables abuse and prevents workers from socialising and taking part in civic life.
• ‘Second job’ myth: The government regularly ‘busts’ helpers found ‘living-out’ in dormitories or shared apartments, the helpers are then liable to prosecution. Authorities claim the ‘live-in’ rule prevents workers taking on ‘illegal’ second jobs, yet a 2002 Caritas investigation of ‘live-out’ helpers found little evidence of this (Mission for Migrant Workers report, pg.5).
• ‘Job hopping’ myth: The government has ignored international pressure, claiming that the ‘two-week’ rule prevents ‘job hopping’. There is little evidence of any trend whereby helpers repeatedly change employer to receive severance benefits. In late 2013, the Immigration Department made it even more difficult for helpers to switch employers in response to lobby groups such as the Hong Kong Employers of Domestic Helpers Association. However, local NGOs insist such a high-risk ‘scam’ makes no sense for helpers, who are hit with high fees when changing contracts and are effectively homeless when not employed. A 2006 HKU study (pg.24) found, in fact, that the ‘two-week’ law “encouraged employers to violate the standard form contract and to ‘maid hop’… putting a ‘menace of penalty’ in the hands of every employment agent and employer“. However, Joseph Law and his Employers Association continue to lobby for helper wages to be lowered or frozen, and for helpers to be excluded from the minimum wage and permanent residency entitlement. HK Helpers Campaign is fighting in the public sphere and in the courtroom. Through our three campaign points, we are calling on the Hong Kong government to…
- …scrap the mandatory ‘live-in’ rule and make it optional for helpers to ‘live-in’ from the outset.
- …scrap the 2-week rule and/or allow helpers to either remain employed or remain in HK whilst legal challenges are being pursued.
- …ensure helpers are not excluded from upcoming maximum working hours legislation.
- …develop an inspection and complaints mechanism to ensure fair and humane working conditions as per ILO recommendations.
- …waive visa extension costs for domestic helpers suing their employers for abuse and give them shelter, interpreters and assistance during the process.
- …properly regulate and inspect helper recruitment agencies.
- …prosecute and sanction those who violate HK law (e.g. by charging excessive fees or confiscating ID documents).
- …tighten the provision of money lender and employment agency licences, meaningfully punishing abuses.
- …increase the HK$50,000 (US$6448) penalty for overcharging placement fees to a more meaningful level.
- …extend the 6-month limit for bringing prosecutions under the Employment Ordinance.
- …tell Beijing to ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, a ground-breaking international treaty adopted in 2011 establishing the first global standards for domestic work.
We call on Hong Kong’s helper employment agencies to:
- …abide by HK law and by keeping proper records and charging no more than HK$401 in placement fees to helpers.
- …stop referring helpers to money lenders.
We call on Hong Kong’s money lenders to:
- …decline applications from helpers referred by employment agencies.
- …stop contacting helper’s employers to apply pressure for repayment.
- …audio record all representations when helpers sign up for a loan.
Do you believe the current situation is unjust?
Click here to find out how you can support the HK Helpers Campaign.
Tom Grundy is a British HK-based activist and New Media graduate who has been campaigning on human rights issues around the city for 8 years.