Today an international petition with over 100,000 signatures was delivered to the Government of Hong Kong calling for an end to the exploitation of migrant domestic workers. The petition, coming just days before the start of the high profile trial of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer was signed by 103,307 individuals from over 160 countries.
In response to the petition Erwiana said, “I don’t want anyone else to experience the abuse I did. That is why I support this call for the government of Hong Kong to end exploitation of migrant domestic workers. I hope that in the future women can come here and work without fear of abuse, with fair pay and equal treatment.”
Organized by Amnesty International, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, International Domestic Workers Federation and Walk Free, the petition calls on the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, to take urgent steps to enhance the protection of migrant domestic workers in the territory. These steps include:
- Establishing a robust, proactive body that monitors, investigates and punishes agencies that charge excessive fees, confiscate passports and encourage underpayment of wages.
- Introducing a government run system for payment of recruitment fees and wages so agencies and employers cannot exploit workers.
- Establishing a body where government, workers and employers agree on recruitment fees, and work towards the international standard of ‘no fee to the employee’.
- Letting employers and workers decide between them whether the worker will live-in or not.
- Abolishing the ‘two week rule’ so that domestic workers are equally under the same immigration policy as other migrant workers.
A damning report by Amnesty International Exploited for Profit published in November 2013 and the shocking abuse of Erwiana by her employer drew international media attention, shining a spotlight on the Government of Hong Kong’s failure to adequately protect migrant domestic workers. The unprecedented international response to the petition demonstrates huge public concern on this issue. This comes on top of years of criticism by local groups and UN bodies, yet the government has so far failed to address violations of its own laws or violations of its international treaty obligations.
Women who come to Hong Kong as domestic workers are systematically exploited by unscrupulous agencies and employers. Many are lied to about their jobs and wages, charged excessive illegal fees, paid less than the Minimum Allowable Wage, and have their passport confiscated. All these practices are against the law and can amount to trafficking for forced labour – a type of modern day slavery. Due to the mandatory live-in requirement abusive employers can hide their crimes and workers often feel they have nowhere to escape. High levels of debt, no passport and fear of losing their jobs also can keep them in an abusive work situation. Those who do escape and make a complaint are unable to work and often go home instead of trying to claim unpaid wages or take those who abused them to court. As a result very few employers or agencies are ever punished for breaking the law.