By Laura Mannering
HONG KONG (AFP) – Amnesty International on Thursday condemned the “slavery-like” conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian women who work in Hong Kong as domestic staff, accusing authorities of “inexcusable” inaction.
Its report, “Exploited for Profit, Failed by Governments”, comes just weeks after a Hong Kong couple were jailed for a shocking string of attacks on their Indonesian housekeeper, including burning her with an iron and beating her with a bike chain.
Amnesty found that Indonesians are exploited by recruitment and placement agencies who seize their documents and charge them excessive fees, with false promises of high salaries and good working conditions.
The process amounted to trafficking and forced labor, Amnesty said, as the women could not escape once they were in debt and their documents seized.
“From the moment the women are tricked into signing up for work in Hong Kong, they are trapped in a cycle of exploitation with cases that amount to modern-day slavery,” said Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific migrants’ rights researcher at Amnesty.
She said she feared the problem was widespread in Hong Kong, where some 150,000 Indonesian women work as “domestic helpers”.
“A conservative figure would be thousands” based on the research figures and taking into account that the most vulnerable were still kept behind closed doors, she said.
The report accuses both Indonesia and Hong Kong of “inexcusable” inaction.
“The authorities may point to a raft of national laws that supposedly protect these women but such laws are rarely enforced,” said Muico.
Hong Kong lawmaker Fernando Cheung said Thursday that he felt “ashamed”.
“The government should increase its effort in implementing the laws that are being violated,” he told reporters.
Hong Kong is home to nearly 300,000 maids from mainly Southeast Asian countries, predominantly Indonesia and the Philippines, with growing criticism from rights groups over their treatment.
Amnesty’s report says two-thirds of those interviewed had endured physical or psychological abuse.
“The wife physically abused me on a regular basis. Once she ordered her two dogs to bite me,” one 26-year-old woman from Jakarta said.
“I had about 10 bites on my body, which broke the skin and bled. She recorded it on her mobile phone, which she constantly played back laughing.
“When one of the dogs vomited, she forced my face down to the vomit, ordering me to eat it, but I refused.
“When I asked her why she kept abusing me in this way, she told me that it was because she was bored, so this is how she passed the time.”
Beaten until ‘black and blue’
Another told of how a male employer “smacked and punched” her until she was “black and blue all over”.
A third of those interviewed had not been allowed to leave their employer’s house. They were spoken to by Amnesty after they had left their jobs.
Many faced physical and sexual violence, lack of food, excessive hours – 17 hours a day was the average among interviewees – as well as underpayment.
Government-licensed recruitment agencies in Indonesia “routinely deceive women about salaries and fees, confiscate identity documents and other property as collateral, and charge fees in excess of those permitted by law”, Amnesty said.
Domestic workers are legally required to live with their employers and are “tightly controlled by their local placement agency and often by their employer” the report said.
They are afraid to speak out, fearing their contracts will be terminated or the agency demands another recruitment fee.
A senior Indonesian labor official said new regulations had been introduced in April aimed at improving the welfare of migrant workers in Hong Kong.
But Muico said Indonesian domestic workers were particularly at risk because the government had outsourced its migrant worker process to private agencies “where the concern is profit”.
Amnesty said its findings were based on interviews with 97 Indonesian migrant domestic workers identified through advocacy groups, and were supported by a random survey of nearly 1,000 women by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union.
Hong Kong’s labour department said that it was “committed to protecting the rights” of Indonesian domestic helpers.
“Any abuse that is supported by sufficient evidence will be prosecuted,” it said in a statement.