Halting exploitation of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong

By Mabel Au, Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

Troubling as tales of abuse of migrant domestic workers are, it is rare for them to hit the headlines.

And when they do – like the horrific abuse of Kartika, who was beaten, slashed, tied up and left to starve by her employers – there is shared outrage at such deplorable treatment.

We are reassured by the fact Catherine Au Yuk-shan, and her husband Tai Chi-wai, were convicted and sent to jail for the abuse they inflicted. It shows the system works and such cases are the exception. Or does it?

The uncomfortable truth – laid bare in Amnesty International’s latest report Exploited for Profit, Failed by Governments – is one of widespread deception and exploitation.

This is a tale of trafficking and forced labour, in which systemic failings foster widespread abuse.

Between the cracks in the law, unscrupulous employment agencies in Hong Kong and Indonesia have constructed a complex and opaque system to circumvent national laws.

The agencies’ aim is simple, to extort as much money from migrant domestic workers as possible via excessive and illegal fees. This is done without fear of reprisal, as both governments appear unwilling to take effective action against them.

From the outset, women are lied to by brokers and recruitment agents in Indonesia about how much they will earn and the high agency fees. By the time they find out the truth they have mysteriously acquired a debt equivalent to thousands of HK dollars that prevents the majority from pulling out.

Nearly a third of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong have been deceived by their recruiter on their terms and conditions of work, including wages according to a poll by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU).When Indonesian migrants arrive in Hong Kong, many (again one third according to IMWU) are made to sign a sham loan agreement forcing them to ‘pay back’ up to HK$21,000 over seven months. A staggering 85 per cent polled said they had paid over the legal limit.

On top of this, many said they were paid less than the Minimum Allowable Wage.

What happens if you want to run away or make a complaint? The agencies (illegally) confiscate your passport. Three quarters of Indonesian migrant domestic workers polled had their passport confiscated by agents or employers. More than a third said they were prevented from leaving their employer’s home.

The cost of accessing justice prevents most from doing so. The domestic worker would lose her job, as no employer would continue hiring a worker who has filed a complaint against them. Unemployed, she wouldn’t have a place to stay because she is required by law to live with her employing family. If the case goes to the Labour Tribunal, that would mean on average fifty days for case resolution.

The Hong Kong government’s own statistics show that only 143 cases regarding wage offences were brought before the Labour Tribunal over the last five years. Of these only 34 resulted in a conviction.

The Labour Commissioner revoked only two placement agencies’ licences in 2012 and only one in the first four months of 2013.

Given the size of the domestic worker population and scale of the abuses, this shows Hong Kong’s redress mechanisms are not working.

The evidence is clear, many agencies are breaking the law and the government is turning a blind eye.

What does this mean for the workers? Indebted and very likely underpaid, worried about losing their jobs and feeling no one can help them, many workers end up staying in abusive situations with their employers.

The circumstances outlined tick all the boxes for what constitutes trafficking for forced labour: recruited by agencies through deception (regarding their terms and conditions) for exploitation (excessive hours, underpayment and denial of rest days) and forced labour (inability to withdraw from this work situation due to crippling debt).

If the Hong Kong government presided over such a large scale deterioration of the rule of law in any other area of life would it be met with such silence?

We all have a responsibility to protect these workers’ rights and to demand the government does more.

The true test of the system is that it breaks the cycle of exploitation these women experience on a daily basis and not just the extreme examples of abuse that occasionally make the front page.

Only then will the government have demonstrated it is serious about ending the trafficking of thousands of vulnerable women for forced labour.

This originally appeared as an op-ed in the South China Morning Post.

Read more:
Thousands of Indonesian women trafficked to Hong Kong face exploitation and risk domestic ‘slavery’
 (News story, 21 November 2013)Exploited for profit, failed by governments (Report, 21 November 2013)
Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong tell their stories (Feature, 21 November 2013)