With the Court of Final Appeal due to consider her case this week, conspicuously absent in this emotive public debate is any meaningful discussion of the widespread exploitation and discrimination migrant domestic workers face on a daily basis.
It is unlikely Hong Kong would be the economic powerhouse it is today without the army of 300,000 migrant domestic workers. The truth is, they are the backbone of our society, liberating tens of thousands of Hong Kong women to enter the labour market and advance our wealth.
Hong Kong can implement robust immigration controls but when it comes to the right to abode, international laws that the government has signed up to are clear: restrictions must respect individual rights and not discriminate. A blanket ban on migrant domestic workers being eligible for permanent residency fails this test.
Despite the controversy surrounding Ms. Vallejos’ case, for many of the Filipino and Indonesian women who gather at Victoria Park and along Chater Road on a Sunday, tackling the discrimination they face everyday remains their priority.
On paper, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong have greater protections than those in Malaysia or Singapore: a weekly rest day, annual leave, a minimum allowable wage, the right to form trade unions and access to a complaints procedure.
Yet the reality is, these labour rights are not properly enforced, leaving women isolated and vulnerable to abuse.
Last year, the UN Committee that looks at discrimination against women expressed ‘deep concern’ about the persistence of violence, abuse and exploitation that Indonesian domestic workers face in Hong Kong.
On arrival they are frequently denied information by Hong Kong placement agents, have their passports confiscated by their employer and are burdened with debt.
Most are forced to take out high interest loans in Hong Kong to pay back questionable training and expense charges.
There is overwhelming evidence this is merely a ruse by placement agents to get around the commission cap of 10 per cent of one month’s salary, which amounts to HK$392.
Instead most women are forced to pay at least seven months’ salary in recruitment fees, up to HK$3,000 per month. This widespread practice is a blatant breach of Hong Kong law and leaves many women trapped.
A recent survey from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU) found that 70 per cent of women in their first contracts were in debt and that a third of domestic workers are paid less than the minimum allowable wage – sometimes as low as HK$2,000 per month.
A migrant domestic worker can be left with as little as HK$500 a month, with the expectation they will still send money home.
Saddled with the cycle of debt, many endure intolerable working conditions, fearful of losing their income and immigration status. Unscrupulous agents and employers take advantage of this precarious situation, acting with virtual impunity.
Forcing migrant domestic workers to live with their employer is another clear act of discrimination – simply because the same measure is not applied to Hong Kong nationals performing similar work. It leaves women vulnerable to poor working conditions and sexual abuse.
There is no law defining the standard of accommodation either. There have been reports of women having to sleep in kitchens, wardrobes and even over a toilet.
It wouldn’t take a Herculean effort from the government to improve the lives of migrant domestic workers. Repealing these and other discriminatory measures and fully enforcing existing labour laws would go a long way towards solving this problem.
It is high time the government stops passing the buck to their counterparts in the migrants’ countries of origin. Instead, it needs to work with them to bring an end to this exploitation.
Whatever the Court of Final Appeal rules this week, Hong Kong must no longer turn a blind eye to the systemic daily discrimination migrant domestic workers face.
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