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Modern-day slavery in HK

/ 09:33 PM January 26, 2014

HONG KONG—Early this month, a battered young Indonesian woman fled her employer’s home in Kowloon, headed straight to the airport and returned to Jakarta. Since her employment here early in 2013, 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih endured vicious beating by her female employer. She had arrived fresh from her village in Central Java hoping to support her impoverished family back home with her wages. But her dreams turned to nightmares as her 44-year-old boss beat her with hard objects and constantly banged her head against the wall when the work went badly.

There are now, among the 300,000 domestic helpers toiling in this Chinese metropolis, an almost equal number of Indonesian women as there are Filipino women. The Filipinos dominated the domestic scene for decades but, learning from Manila’s experience of gaining remittances for precious foreign currency from its migrant workers’ labor, Jakarta also started exporting its women. Young girls plucked from their villages and given crash courses in Cantonese began to be sent to this Special Administrative Region of  China.

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Obviously, Erwiana had not been informed of what she should expect in this Chinese enclave, or been properly advised of the agencies to turn to in times of distress. What had been dinned into her head was how to remit her wages back to Jakarta banks. Unlike her Filipino counterparts, she was not told of the nongovernment organizations and church groups available for when migrants encounter any abuse from their bosses. Coming from a Muslim society, she knew only to work hard, be humble, and not complain. These are what have now scarred her life.

Ever since the late 1970s when Hongkongers felt the need to employ servants in their households, Filipino women have been imported into the city. This was easily accomplished because the workers’ country of origin is a mere two hours away by plane, and it was an advantage for employers that the women spoke English. In the early days it was mainly expatriates and western-educated Chinese in the British colony who appreciated this fact, but soon more and more non-English-speaking locals decided they, too, wanted servants.

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All this took place against the backdrop of the Marcos era, when the dictator and his clan were engaged in their economic depredations that ruined the economy and destroyed the Philippines’ middle class.

Over the decades the trickle of Filipino domestics grew into a flood. By the mid-1990s yearly surveys of foreign residents in the city showed Filipino citizens topping the list at over 200,000.  The NGOs sprang up when vulnerable women were found suffering a battery of abuse like overwork, inadequate food allowances or rest periods, underpayment or nonpayment of wages, minor physical and major psychological attacks, even rapes. These proved that the terms stipulated in the labor contract were constantly being flouted, but local authorities just turned a blind eye.

The Indonesian government offered Hongkongers the added advantage of having its women schooled in Cantonese. As an Indonesian activist told me (having undergone the training herself), this involves several months of training in the language, during which the women are not let out of the gulag-like conditions of their camp.

Once the women are in Hong Kong, the Indonesian Consulate is too busy to extend protection to them, being more active in acting as a recruitment agency. This proved so successful that the Indonesian women soon matched the Filipino women in numbers. Today, imports of Bangladeshi women, as well as Burmese, have been initiated. That Filipino women know their rights—thanks to social workers and publications like that written by lawyer Jim Rice called “Take Your Rights Seriously”—makes them less attractive locally.

The outcry over Erwiana’s case may make Hongkongers admit that modern-day slavery has been practiced here for decades. Consciences may or may not be pricked. The more likely scenario is that the demand for docile females from other poor countries will escalate because the need for cleaners, child-minders and caregivers for the elderly persists. Amid the locals’ frenetic rush to build more wealth, any awareness that workers’ human rights need to be observed will fall by the wayside.

Protest actions by hundreds of people supporting Erwiana were covered by the media, as was the detention of her employer (who attempted to flee to Thailand and posted bail of HK$1 million when detained). A team of Hong Kong investigators went to Indonesia to gather evidence before the case is tried.

Whether justice will prevail is an imponderable. Indeed, the commodification of female workers is something that occurs around the world, difficult to stamp out overnight especially where capitalist employers are as firmly entrenched as they are in Hong Kong. Erwiana’s case is one that can well go down in local history books as “Hong Kong’s shame.”

Isabel T. Escoda is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

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