Saturday, 3 June 2017

Where's the Dignity?

Domestic helpers don't have a voice when it comes to injustices by employers
The relationship between an employer and domestic helper is a uneasy one for both.

Many employers don't know where to draw the line in terms of hours of service and how much help to expect, while the helpers themselves are uncomfortable living with their bosses and having to be available around the clock except Sundays and public holidays.

The 2015 case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was shocking -- where the employer stuffed the tube of a vacuum cleaner into her mouth, assaulted her to the point where her teeth were fractured, and even stripped her down, splashed cold water on her and pointed a blowing fan in her face.

Erwiana's case higlighted the abuse of domestic helpers
For this her employer Law Wan-tung was sentenced to six years in prison and fined HK$15,000. While the former beautician claimed it was difficult being in prison and missed her children, why did she do such inhumane things to another person?

It can be hard to understand why employers mistreat their helpers, though by the same token, many aren't interested in the job -- who would like to clean up after people they barely know, and cook food they are not familiar with, look after elderly or babies, and deal with bratty children?

While there are some good relationships employers have with their domestic helpers, there are a lot out there that could be better.

There was the fiasco of how domestic helpers have died from falling out of windows because their employers demanded they do the task, and now the focus has shifted to their living quarters.

Under Hong Kong's labour rules, domestic helpers must live with their employer, who must in turn provide free, suitable accommodation with "reasonable privacy". That sounds very vague.

Some bizarre sleeping arrangements for helpers in the city
And because of that, some employers have taken advantage of the situation to house helpers in the most horrendous environments.

One is coffin-like rooms that are narrow closet spaces that are claustrophobic at 170cm by 69cm.

If there isn't enough room inside, there was a case of an employer forcing their helper to sleep outside on the rooftop where the ceiling was only 1.2 metres high -- hardly high enough to stand up.

According to NGO Mission for Migrant Workers, 3 percent of those surveyed slept in the kitchen. In one case, a helper's bed was located in a cupboard above the fridge and microwave oven.

In 2015, the mission said some helpers reported being forced to sleep on top of fridges. How do you do that? One would have to sleep like a cat curled up. And it would be very warm up there too.

The mission also says some 500 helpers are expected to make their sleeping quarters in the toilet. Chinese newspaper Ming Pao reported one helper had to make her bed on the floor of the toilet, sleeping next to clothes that were just washed and dried. According to other media reports, another helper had to spread a towel across a washer and dryer and sleep on top.

These stories are cases of modern slavery. Why does the Hong Kong government allow this to happen? It's shocking and completely unacceptable. This is what breeds racism and prejudice which is the last thing we need in this city.

It's high time we give domestic helpers their dignity.

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