Stop the Traffic

Commentary for Herizons magazine. Views expressed are my opinions only.

Before I moved to Hong Kong, I had planned to write about the domestic helpers whose cheap live in labour helped the city’s economy flourish from the 1980s onwards. I could not have expected that I would end up in a hospital in a poverty-stricken Indonesian town, wondering what to say to the young victim who suffered months of torture at the home of her Hong Kong employer.

Erwiana Sulistayaniangsih returned home on January 10 with her body covered in cuts, burns and bruises. The infected wounds on her legs and feet were so painful that she was barely able to walk, but she was afraid to ask for help because her employer had allegedly threatened to kill her family if she told of the abuse. It wasn’t until a concerned stranger helped the 23-year-old return to her village in Central Java that Erwiana was able to receive emergency medical care.

“I wanted to work as a domestic helper to save money to go to university,” Erwiana told me on the last day of a week I spent mostly waiting around outside her hospital room to interview family members, police and officials in the town of Sragen. She had been one of the top-achieving students in her secondary school, but her family was unable to afford university tuition for the aspiring accountant.

Erwiana’s case made front page headlines around the world—it was the most widely reported case of the assault of a domestic helper in recent memory, Indonesian NGO workers told me. The photographs of Erwiana and her injuries that circulated widely through social media helped to stir public outrage.

“When my daughter left home she weighed 50 kilograms. She returned to us weighing 25 kilograms. It broke my heart,” said Erwiana’s father, Rohmad Saputro.

Most abuse cases involving foreign domestic workers go unreported and uninvestigated, but in Erwiana’s case, her employer was arrested on January 19 while trying to get a flight to Thailand. A Hong Kong court heard that Erwiana suffered multiple injuries, including broken teeth and upper jaw, nose fractures and brain swelling. She claims the assaults took place at her employer’s home from July 5, 2013 to January 9 of this year.

This case, while unusually severe, reflects an epidemic of abuse of foreign domestic helpers in Asia and the Middle East, where cases are often brought to justice only because of public pressure. And, while international support for Erwiana was considerable, the pressure needs to continue for the sake of thousands of other vulnerable workers facing isolation and stigma in foreign countries on account of their ethnic, gender and socio-economic backgrounds.

In Hong Kong—where working conditions are generally better than in other jurisdictions that use imported domestic labour (including some of the wealthier countries of the Middle East and Malaysia)—helpers are forced to live with their employers. There are no mandatory maximum working hours and a salary of only $570 Canadian dollars a month is common. A 2013 survey by local charity Mission for Migrant Workers found that 18 percent of domestic helpers in Hong Kong had experienced physical abuse, and six percent reported sexual abuse.

Recruitment agencies in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines often collude with agencies in receiving countries to charge migrant workers exorbitant training fees that can take up to a year to pay off. This amounts to debt bondage, a condition where domestic helpers are afraid to change employers to avoid incurring more debt—a situation Amnesty International has condemned as human trafficking.

Indeed, in Canada, a Hong Kong employer who brought a Filipino woman to work for his family in Vancouver, and continued to pay her under the terms of their Hong Kong contract, was sentenced last year to 18 months in jail for human trafficking. Besides judgments such as these, Canada can do a lot more to improve its own protections for migrant workers.

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