'One in 6 HK foreign maids in forced labour'

Protesters shouting slogans for migrant workers' rights outside an employment agency in Hong Kong last year. One in three households with children in Hong Kong employs a foreign domestic worker, who works an average of over 70 hours a week.
Protesters shouting slogans for migrant workers' rights outside an employment agency in Hong Kong last year. One in three households with children in Hong Kong employs a foreign domestic worker, who works an average of over 70 hours a week.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Govt must do more to protect victims of trafficking and exploitation, say rights activists

LONDON • One in six migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is a victim of forced labour, and a significant proportion have been trafficked, rights campaigners said as they called for stronger protections for the city's maids.

Research by the Justice Centre Hong Kong suggests more than 80 per cent of the territory's 336,600 domestic workers are exploited, with some working 20 hours a day.

"Hong Kong must come clean; the government can no longer afford to simply sweep these problems under the carpet," the centre said in a report.

The treatment faced by the city's domestic helpers made international headlines last year when a Hong Kong mother was sentenced to six years in prison for repeatedly abusing and assaulting her maids.

Another Hong Kong couple was jailed in 2013 for torturing their maid, who said they once put her in a nappy and tied her to a chair while they went on holiday.

The Justice Centre said the Hong Kong government often treated such cases as isolated incidents, but campaigners believe they are symptomatic of widespread exploitation.

One in three Hong Kong households with children employs a maid. The majority are from the Philippines and Indonesia.

The study found that the maids work an average of over 70 hours a week, yet only a fraction reported receiving above the minimum monthly wage, which recently rose to HK$4,210 (S$750).

The study surveyed more than 1,000 domestic workers from eight countries about their pay, work conditions and treatment.

Extrapolating the results suggests over 50,000 migrant domestic workers may be in forced labour, of whom 14 per cent may have been trafficked, according to the report "Coming Clean".

The authors said that forced labour and trafficking "don't always take place in shackles and in the shadows". They highlighted the case of Ms Indah, an Indonesian maid who was hired legally and receives the minimum wage, but is still a victim of forced labour.

Ms Indah, who has had her passport confiscated, works 20 hours a day. Her employer often wakes her at night to work and forces her to work for other people and on her day off.

The Justice Centre urged the government to create clear guidelines on working hours and abolish the requirement for maids to "live in", which it said increased the risk of exploitation.

A rule requiring migrant workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of their contract ending should also be scrapped, as this leaves them scared to report abuse, the centre added.

"The government will have to be pushed and pulled into doing something," said legislator Emily Lau, head of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, who also called for workers' home countries to take action.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline ''One in 6 HK foreign maids in forced labour''. Print Edition | Subscribe