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‘Beaten black and blue’: Domestic workers still face abuse, wage theft and cramped living in Hong Kong

A modern slave in one of the world’s most modern cities. Surapi travelled to Hong Kong with the dream of providing a better life for her husband and seven-year-old son back home in Indonesia. Instead, she lived a waking nightmare.

“My employer punched and kicked me, she said ‘if you go out I will blacklist you, I will make trouble for you’ so I couldn’t go out,” she says, opening a photo of her bruised and swollen face on her phone.

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Surapi. Photo: Angus Smith.

Surapi’s beatings were more frequent than her pay. In the four years and nine months she spent with her violent employer, Surapi received her promised salary five times. The last time her boss assaulted her so badly she couldn’t hide the bruises.

“When Surapi was brought here she was black and blue,” says Cynthia Tellez, General Manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, which runs Bethune House. “Surapi’s neighbour saw her black eyes and brought her to our shelter.”

Bethune House is two small units with 15 bunk beds in each. It often sleeps more bodies than there are beds. It was founded in 1986 to help migrant workers in Hong Kong.

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Cynthia Tellez, General Manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers. Photo: Angus Smith.

See also: Eni’s story: Why Bethune House offers an essential lifeline for domestic workers facing abuse

Every month, Surapi had her wage docked. If there was dust, her salary was reduced. If she used warm water or the heater it was reduced again. Deductions were sometimes accompanied by beatings.

However, it’s not just the employers who are exploiting the workers. According to Tellez employment agencies often take around two-thirds of the workers’ pay for the first six months. Sometimes longer. It’s a widespread practice. “It’s not the majority but it happens a lot,” Tellez says.

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Surapi. Photo: Angus Smith.

The government has set a maximum amount of money that can be paid to agencies, but many of the terms are made before they leave. “The problem is that when they get here without a clear arrangement they don’t receive their salaries. The workers are expecting to be able to send money home and it’s not happening,” Tellez says.

Dolores Balladares is Chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong. She is also a migrant and has been a domestic worker in Hong Kong for 22-years.

One of the big issues Balladares is taking on is the overcharging and illegal collection of wages by the recruitment agencies. This week the advocacy group took to the streets with the Mission for Migrant Workers and more than 30 other agencies to protest the poor treatment of workers.

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Dolores Balladares. Photo: Angus Smith.

The Hong Kong government does have a policy of no agency fees, but the agencies often collect money from the workers before they go overseas. Balladares is calling on the government to enforce direct hiring and cut out the employment agencies.

Housing affordability in Hong Kong is a big issue. Units are small and cramped, and as a condition of their visa, domestic workers are forced to live on site. “We thought sleeping in the toilet was an extraordinary situation, but it’s not; it happens a lot.” says Cynthia Tellez. Workers are made to sleep in toilets, cupboards, verandahs, under television sets and on top of fridges.

“People have to sleep on top of refrigerators’ two of our cases involve people who fell off,” Tellez says.

domestic worker helper abuse protest demonstration

File photo: Tom Grundy.

Dolores Balladares is calling on the government to intervene. “We want the government to say that a toilet is not suitable accommodation, sofas, living-rooms, lobbies, on top of the washing machine or the cupboard, these places are not suitable accommodation.”

The abuse, wage theft and cramped living is made worse by the long hours migrant workers are forced to work. “There are no working hour regulations, we work for 12 – 16 hours a day, 24 hours on call, and then some have no day off,” says Balladares.

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Photo: Angus Smith.

“Our campaign aim is to have 11 hours uninterrupted rest, plus three meal breaks, and then the rest of the 24 hours, around 10 hours, will be the maximum hours of work.”

There are around 190,000 Filipino workers and 150,000 Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong.  By law, they get one day off a week. Every Sunday hundreds of thousands of migrant workers across Hong Kong head to the streets. Underpasses, overpasses, parks, gardens, basketball courts and sidewalks are filled with music, dancing, socialising, and celebration.

Many place flattened cardboard boxes on to the ground to keep their clothes clean and dry. Some catch up on sleep. With just one day of statutory freedom, they try to make it count. It’s this energy that Balladares is trying to harness. “We are going to have a huge rally in the streets in September and October,” Balladares says.

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Photo: Angus Smith.

Surapi’s case appeared before a judge who ruled in her favour. It’s a victory but, for now, she is still living in Bethune House and looking for a job so she can send money home.

'Beaten black and blue': Domestic workers still face abuse, wage theft and cramped living in Hong Kong