‘Tools more than humans’: HK domestic workers fight for rights

After years of exploitation and abuse, Hong Kong’s 340,000 migrant domestic workers are fighting back in the courts.

The same day that Sukhi* landed in Hong Kong in April 2018 after a long flight from India, she was forced to start work.

So began a years-long trauma trapped in slave-like conditions.

“I thought I would have a better life,” Sukhi told Al Jazeera, recalling how her male employer confiscated her phone and passport. She was just 21 years old, and it was her first time travelling overseas.

Later joined by her sister, she had to work 16-hour days, cleaning, cooking, and tending to the man’s children — as well as servicing clients in his beauty salon. “But there were no happy moments.”

For decades, Hong Kong’s 340,000 migrant domestic workers have faced abuse and exploitation, despite the economic and social benefits they bring to the Chinese-ruled territory. Lawyers, campaigners and workers blame a combination of low pay, weak labour laws, lax prosecution of wrongdoing by employers and punitive government policy.

But now the women are fighting back — in the courts and on the streets.

In January, a Hong Kong labour tribunal ruled in favour of Sukhi and her younger sister in a case against their former employer, who now faces significant fines and potentially jail time.

He was found to have illegally forced them to work a second job in his beauty salon and, during the pandemic, paid them an illegal monthly salary of just 1,500 Hong Kong dollars ($191). The sisters were also subject to regular abuse and humiliation. Once, after the employer found food residue on a plate Sukhi had washed, they rubbed it on her face as punishment.

“I feel like my life is just starting,” said Sukhi, who decided to confront the employer last May after she was put in contact with HELP for Domestic Workers, a local nonprofit that provides shelter, basic supplies and legal advice to the women.

‘Lifeline to families’
Sukhi and her sister’s experience is not an isolated case.

Research in 2016 by the Justice Centre, a local nonprofit, found 18 percent of domestic workers suffered physical abuse, 66 percent were victims of exploitation, and 1 in 6 were in a situation of forced labour. On average, the more than 1,000 domestic workers surveyed each worked 71.4 hours a week. In 2020, while the city was under strict lockdown, cases of sexual abuse and harassment reportedly tripled.

The fallout of that abuse continues to surface.

In February, a court ordered a Hong Kong couple — who had already been sentenced to jail time — to pay 868,600 Hong Kong dollars ($110,652) to their former domestic worker, an Indonesian woman, after they were found guilty of years of abuse.

The court heard how they had burned her with a hot iron, beaten her with a bicycle chain and, on one occasion, tied her to a chair without food while they flew off on a holiday to Thailand.

But it is not just the abuse or the risk of slave-like conditions; the women — mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines — also face institutional obstacles that make it hard for them to escape even dangerous situations, according to critics.

Under Hong Kong’s so-called “two-week” rule, domestic workers must leave the city within two weeks if they lose their job, making them less likely to leave abusive employers for fear of being deported. Under “live-in” laws, they must live in their employers’ homes, raising the likelihood of overworking and often forcing them to sleep in a tiny space at best, or the floor at worst.

Read the complete article by Peter Yeung for Al Jazeera here.

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