She was beaten and tortured until she was “barely recognizable,” but in the end, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker who was held captive in a Hong Kong residence, still recognized the humanity of her abuser.
After her employer was found guilty on numerous counts of wage theft and inflicting “grievous bodily harm,” Erwiana still told the South China Morning Post. “As a human being, I can forgive Law Wan-tung and her family.”
But shame still weighs on the country that lured her into the job. Over the past year, Erwiana has become the public face of an invisible economy—the global trade in “domestic helpers,” hired for temporary housekeeping and caregiving jobs, that has exposed countless migrants to rampant exploitation and physical and sexual abuse in Hong Kong’s bourgeois flats.
According to Amnesty International researcher Norma Muico, “Thousands of Indonesian migrant domestic workers are trafficked to Hong Kong for exploitation and forced labour.” Some surveys indicate that about one in five of the city’s migrant workers have experienced abuse. Although migrants in other sectors, like construction work, are vulnerable to exploitation, Muico explains via e-mail, “what makes domestic work unique is that the work is done in a private home, which makes access to the workers difficult and monitoring working conditions extremely challenging.”
Their vulnerability is deepened by a “live-in” requirement and rules that give workers just days to find new work if they leave their employer, or else risk losing their legal status.
The advocacy group Mission for Migrant Workers explains, “This live-in arrangement forces [foreign domestic workers] to be on-call for 24 hours a day and [they] are forced to accept any sleep in and living arrangement the employer provides,” and “are forced to surrender their privacy, their health, their security and their safety.”