Hong Kong’s Indentured Servants
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a 23-year-old Indonesian maid, returned to her home province of Java from Hong Kong last month hardly able to walk. Cuts and burns covered most of her body. Her employer in Hong Kong allegedly beat her and locked her up for weeks.
Each year hundreds of thousands of young Indonesian women like Ms. Erwiana fan out across Asia and the Middle East to live in the homes of local people and serve as their domestic helpers — cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly. Most send a portion of their salary home to their families every month, fueling an Indonesian economy that relies on remittances. More than 320,000 foreign domestic helpers live in Hong Kong, a city of seven million people, and close to half of them come from Indonesia.
Although Hong Kong has better legal protections for foreign domestic helpers than other Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, the laws that govern their living and working conditions are discriminatory and foster an environment that can lead to abuse. Ms. Erwiana was by no means the first victim in Hong Kong of a horrible beating, and unless changes are made to the law, she won’t be the last.
The most restrictive requirement on foreign maids in Hong Kong is the so-called live-in law, which requires that the guest workers reside with their employers. Many employers give maids small windowless closets for bedrooms, and sometimes worse. The live-in rule means that maids are often on call 24 hours a day. And maids with abusive employers have few places to go or people they can turn to for help.
The minimum wage for foreign maids in Hong Kong — a flat rate of $517 per month — works out to be significantly lower than it is for locals, which is about $3.85 per hour. By paying foreign maids much less for longer working hours, Hong Kong has, in effect, created an underclass of foreign female laborers. The women who take care of Hong Kong’s children and elderly are on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder.
And while the legal code is flawed, it is also often flouted. Many employers and placement agents hold maids’ travel documents to prevent them from leaving the territory without permission. They are often paid less than the minimum wage and forced to work seven days a week.
Thousands of maids each year file complaints with the Hong Kong Labor Department over contract disputes. A survey by the Mission for Migrant Workers, a nongovernmental organization, reported in 2013 that some 18 percent of maids said they were physically abused by their employers.
每年都会有数千名外佣因为合约纠纷向香港劳工处投诉。非政府组织移民工牧民中心(Mission for Migrant Workers)在2013年公布的一项调查显示，约有18%的外佣表示曾受到雇主肢体侵犯。
Yet thousands of women still migrate to Hong Kong, appreciative of the opportunity to earn money that wouldn’t be available to them at home. This workforce of women contributes significantly to their home-country economies: All foreign workers from the Philippines, the other main source of maids in Hong Kong, sent $24 billion home in 2012, while Indonesians sent home an estimated $7.1 billion.
My work as a photojournalist took me to Indonesia and Hong Kong between November 2012 and February 2013 to investigate the recruitment of Indonesian domestic helpers and the conditions in which they live in Hong Kong. I spoke with many domestic workers and while some seemed content, a shocking number told of misery and abuse.
Lista, 26, was excited to start her new job in Hong Kong when I spoke with her there in November 2012. But after talking about how much she was looking forward to the money, she said, almost jokingly, that living conditions in Hong Kong are not always good. Her sister had to resign as a maid in order to leave the tiny nook in which she was sleeping: a windowless pantry. She also talked, not without horror, about her friend who was forced to sleep on her employer’s dining room table once they had all gone to bed.
While the Hong Kong legal system and abusive employers are to blame for many of the hardships maids face in the Chinese territory, the situation is more complex. Indonesia’s government and private business people actively support this flawed system.
In Indramayu, a town in West Java, Indonesia, I met Bunda Pitrin and her husband Milyanto, who were brokers for domestic-helper recruitment agencies. They sell the dream of a better life abroad to young female villagers and their families.
Each maid they send to a recruitment center in Jakarta brings them around $685. They promise 30 percent to the woman’s family, to encourage them to let her leave home.
Yayu Rolya Subandiyah, 26, arrived in Hong Kong in August 2012. Before moving, she had spent six months in a training center in Java, a requirement of the Indonesian government, where she was taught the basics of cooking, cleaning and some English and Cantonese.
今年26岁的雅玉·罗莉亚·苏班迪亚(Yayu Rolya Subandiyah)于2012年8月来到香港。前往香港前，按照印尼政府的规定，她在爪哇的一家培训中心待了六个月，在那里她学到了烹饪、清洁的基础知识，以及一些英语和广东话。
Like all of her compatriots, she had to pay back the fees for the training classes. When maids arrive in Hong Kong, most women are forced to relinquish a large part of their salary each month to repay the cost of the training back home. This ties them to their new jobs in Hong Kong, and makes it more difficult for them to leave when the situation is bad.
In Ms. Yayu’s case, things quickly became complicated with her employer. During her second week on the job, her employer, in a fit of rage, threw some cleaning product into her eyes. She fled out of fear. Her first instinct was to seek refuge with her placement agency, but she found that the agents there did not want to know about her troubles, and she was encouraged to return to her employer.
By creating conditions that keep Indonesian women tied to their debts, while limiting their movements and underpaying them, the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments and the recruiters force maids into a form of indentured servitude. The people of Hong Kong should demand that their government rectify the legal discrimination and provide more protections for their domestic workers. And Indonesians should do their part to reshape the recruitment system so foreign worker safety and dignity come before profits.
As Ms. Yayu told me in Hong Kong, “We come here to work, not to be humiliated or tortured.”