Hong Kong: Domestic workers make plea for fair treatment over Lunar New Year
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Hong Kong: Domestic workers make plea for fair treatment over Lunar New Year

AS much of Hong Kong looks forward to reuniting with family and eating a feast this weekend in celebration of Lunar New Year, Hong Kong’s domestic workers are making a plea for fair treatment this holiday period.

Domestic workers are often subject to unfair working conditions, reports the South China Morning Post, but they are particularly vulnerable over the upcoming holiday as families often ask them to work at relatives’ houses to ease the burden of entertaining.

“Our wish is for Hong Kong to become a better place for domestic workers. We have been feeling very intense discrimination over the years,” Eni Lestari, spokeswoman of the Asia Migrants’ Coordinating Body, which pushes for domestic workers’ rights, said. “We want to be recognised and respected. We want to be treated as human beings.”

SEE ALSO: The plight of the globe’s domestic workers

Employers have also been alerted to the legal ramifications of asking domestic workers to work the holidays.

Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Employers of Domestic Helpers Association, pointed out that doing so would breach helpers’ contracts, even if employees were willing to do the work.

Yung said, “The employers could be put on the ban list if the workers file complaints to the consulates. The consulates may not allow any domestic workers to work for them in the future.”

They have also been warned that if a domestic worker does work any of the days over the holiday, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that they are compensated in kind with a day in lieu.

The plight of domestic workers in Hong Kong came to the fore in 2014 when pictures of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih went viral. The pictures showed extensive injuries that were inflicted by Sulistyaningsih’s employer. The case shone a light on the dire working conditions many domestic workers are forced to live with and made Erwiana Sulistyaningsih the face of Hong Kong’s migrant rights movement.

SEE ALSO: Hong Kong domestic helper testifies she was starved, tortured by employer

There are more than 350,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong serving over 280,000 households. The government has been taking steps to combat the issue of worker’s rights in the city but progress has been slow.

Last week, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, in his final policy address said that the Labour Department plans to introduce an amendment bill this year to complement a newly announced code of practice for employment agencies recruiting domestic workers.  If passed, the amendment will provide the legal basis for enforcing the code, which is currently legally non-binding.

HongKongMaidAbuseProtestJan19

Domestic helpers and their supporters attend a protest to support Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong in January 2014. Source: AP.

The code was promulgated in response to public concerns, especially those from job seekers and “with particular regard to the situation of foreign domestic helpers,” the department wrote in the draft code released last April.

The department also plans to impose heavier penalties on employment agencies that overcharge jobseekers or operate without a licence, Leung said

While domestic worker’s rights groups are happy with the new bill, they are reluctant to celebrate just yet.

“We hope that this will not be just another government media hype and it should respond to the longstanding demands of migrant domestic workers’ organisations and advocates,” Eman Villanueva of the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, told HKFP.

“Legislation should have been introduced much earlier [than] what they have promised, not three and a half years after Erwiana’s horrific case,” he said.