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Despite abuses, foreign domestic workers still flock to Hong Kong

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
September 19, 2013 -- Updated 0736 GMT (1536 HKT)
Hong Kong is facing a shortage of foreign domestic helpers from the region.
Hong Kong is facing a shortage of foreign domestic helpers from the region.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Couple sentenced to jail over abuse highlights tough environment for domestic helpers in HK
  • Despite abuses many foreign domestic helpers prefer Hong Kong to other work destinations
  • Rights group says requirements that domestic helpers live with employers should be scrapped
  • Study: As many as a third of domestic helpers in Hong Kong do not have proper living spaces

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Beaten with bicycle chains, burned with hot irons and bashed with a shoe, the case of Indonesian domestic helper Kartika Puspitasari -- whose Chinese employers were jailed this week over the assaults -- highlights just how tough Hong Kong can be for some of the city's thousands of foreign domestic helpers.

For many of these estimated 292,000 workers, the city's highly regulated if Spartan work conditions are a luxury.

"I worked in Lebanon between 2005 and 2006 and Hong Kong is much, much better," domestic helper Marie Reyes told CNN. "The minimum wage in Lebanon is $US200 (per month) but absolutely no one paid that. We were paid $150 and were locked into three-year contracts and we were required to work seven days a week."

For vulnerable groups like Overseas Filipino Workers, or OFWs as they are known in the Philippines, basic political stability is another of Hong Kong's attractions.

Read more: Convicted of human trafficking

Hong Kong maids vow to fight court ruling

"At the time I was in Beirut, the Israelis attacked the city with rockets and I was so scared, all I wanted to do was get to the Philippines Embassy and get out," Reyes said. "My employers were in London at the time and we were just two domestic helpers in an empty house with rockets falling everywhere.

Locked in

"It was so nerve-wracking because my employers said once we'd left the house, as far as they were concerned we'd left the job and we couldn't go back again.

"Even when we'd grabbed our passports and work permits and got out the front gate, no taxi driver was willing to drive us to the embassy because it was in a Muslim area of the city that was under fire."

Read more: Hong Kong's foreign maids lose residency fight

Domestic helpers are guaranteed a minimum wage of $HK3,920 ($US505) a month but are required to live in with their employers, a situation that support groups for domestic helpers say contributes to abuse.

Hong Kong's Mission For Migrant Workers (MFMW) released a study this year based on interviews with more than 3,000 foreign domestic workers, and found that almost one third had no proper accommodation within the house.

No privacy

"They do not have their own room provided and have to either share the bedroom with other members of the household or sleep in common areas of the apartment, such as the living room, study or playroom where there is very little privacy," the study reported.

You can be woken up any time of the night just to get a glass of water. Living outside is what all domestic helpers want -- it means you can finally get some rest.
Marie Reyes

"Some even sleep in unsuitable spaces such as the bathroom, toilets, veranda, corridor, kitchen and storage rooms, with only makeshift beds on top of ovens, cupboards or bathtubs. There are FDWs that are forced to share the room with young adult male members of the household," it added.

MFMW Director Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the government requirement that maids must live with their employer meant they had nowhere to run when they were abused. She said the decision should be left to the employers and the maids whether they live together.

She also urged the government to scrap a policy that requires domestic helpers to leave Hong Kong just two weeks after their contracts expire, saying it did not give workers enough time to find new work.

"It often forces the helpers to endure abuses so they can hold on to their jobs," she said, adding that they needed the jobs to support their families back home.

Indonesian Foreign Domestic Worker Ganika Diristiani, chairwoman of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong, told the SCMP agency fees that could often amount to HK$21,000 (US$2,708) -- deductible from a foreign domestic worker's first seven months of salary -- were another reason so many helpers tolerated unfair treatment.

For Marie Reyes, however, live-in arrangements, especially with demanding employers, means that as a foreign domestic worker you are on call 24 hours a day, six days a week.

"You can be woken up any time of the night just to get a glass of water," she said. "Living outside is what all domestic helpers want -- it means you can finally get some rest."

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