Domestic helpers and their supporters attend a protest to support 23-year-old Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong, Sunday. Pic: AP.

Horrific case hides systemic exploitation of domestic helpers, reports Asia Sentinel’s Cyril Pereira

The disfigured face of a young girl, her body emaciated and tortured, feet swollen, eyes blackened, stared out the front page of the South China Morning Post on Jan. 17 in a harrowing flashback to WWII concentration camp victims.

The staid English language paper is not given to exploiting photos of human misery. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s case was just too outrageous for a society that should take human rights seriously.

Most Hong Kong families treat their domestic workers reasonably, provide adequate food, allow Sundays off and give extra pay for working public holidays. Many domestics endure scolding and verbal abuse stoically. Physical torture is rare.

(MORE: HK arrests woman in Indonesian maid abuse case)

There are 300,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, divided almost equally between Philippine and Indonesian sources. Couples can leave home to earn good wages while child-rearing, caring after aged parents and household chores are juggled by the help. Helpers work from dawn till midnight – then withdraw to the kitchen floor to sleep, as few HK flats are big enough to spare a room.

No minimum wage, no residency
Asia’s ‘World City’ denies domestic workers the statutory minimum wage which applies to all other labor. It also blocked residency rights last year for domestic workers who have been retained past the seven year tenure which would have made them eligible to apply for permanent resident status.

The largest political party in the Hong Kong Legislature, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) was at the forefront of scare-mongering about residency rights for qualifying domestics. Its vice-chairman Starry Lee Wai King raised the specter of the territory being flooded by half-a-million Filipinos, which she computed would load the government with HK$110 billion in capital costs, HK$26 billion in annual recurrent expenditure and untold billions more in healthcare.

When challenged on an RTHK radio call-in to justify her whacky projections, she admitted that it was “the worst case scenario” and that it was up to the government to table its estimates. Enough panic had been generated by then.

The other notable lobbyist against residency rights for domestics was Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who had to resign her Security portfolio in 2003 after failing to ram a security bill into law under the Tung Chee Hwa administration. She now leads the New Peoples Party. Regina was all for a preemptive National People’s Congress ruling by Beijing when the case reached Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal. She is referred to as the ‘fake democrat’ by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fong On-sang.

Both ambitious women are members of the Executive Council, which serves as a cabinet to the chief executive. The cynical below-minimum wage for domestic helpers was crafted by this cabal without consulting labour unions, domestic worker representatives or through open debate in the Legislature.

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