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.”
Although Hong Kong has stronger labor protections for migrants than some other countries, as well as migrant workers’ unions, the massive size and oppressive structure of the workforce embodies the ghosts of a colonial social hierarchy.
According to interviews and court testimony, Erwiana suffered regular beatings using “rulers, clothes hangers and metal tubes from a vacuum cleaner.” Her boss was accused of stripping her naked to expose her to the cold and forcing her to urinate in bags instead of the toilet. Throughout the ordeal, which was shared by other maids in the house, Erwiana was forced to work around the clock and systematically starved.
After more than half a year, her employer tried to send her back to Indonesia. The 23-year-old showed up at the airport, her body hobbled and scarred, wounds hidden under layers of clothing and a diaper. “[Law] put make-up on me so I don’t look like someone who’d just been tortured,” Erwiana recalled. But she finally caught the attention of the authorities.
Roughly half of Hong Kong’s estimated 320,000 migrant domestic workers are Indonesian women, according to a 2013 Amnesty International report, and the abuse begins with the international recruitment racket, with false promises of high salaries and forced participation in draconian “training” programs. This tracks workers into debt bondage with fees and deposits, while they are housed in barracks-like facilities and subjected to verbal abuse to break them in. Many young workers are pressured to sign contracts they don’t understand.
One woman from Ponorogo, Indonesia, told researchers she had ended up with just $280 per month instead of the $460 promised, but was advised that “If Hong Kong authorities ask me, I must tell them that I receive the full salary. I couldn’t turn back because the staff reminded me that a lot of money was already invested in me. If I changed my mind, I would have to pay a huge penalty. I also needed to earn money, so that I could support my family in Indonesia.”
Some Hong Kongers seem to buy into the false advertising, too. Law’s defense lawyer painted Erwiana as an “opportunist” scheming against her boss, a refined middle-aged mother—the story seemed too dramatic to be true.
But Erwiana recalled that she was held captive both by psychological and physical restraint. Not only was she locked in the apartment, her documents confiscated; her boss also terrorized her with constant surveillance and threats to kill her family if she left. She tried and failed to escape, and thought about crawling out the window of the high-rise apartment, but she “didn’t have the courage.”
She was brave enough, however, to travel back to Hong Kong for her boss’s trial, and the case has since inspired street protests demanding equal rights for migrants—a campaign that paralleled last year’s pro-democracy protests. But the two youth-oriented movements, Occupy Central and Justice for Erwiana, have underscored a social divide. Although migrant workers’ groups turned out for the protests for universal suffrage, they remain generally barred even from becoming citizens. So the cries for inclusive democracy under Beijing’s authoritarian rule must have sounded half-empty to the migrants who cooked and cleaned at home while young students took to the streets.
Currently, migrant workers are fighting for just the most basic rights. Amnesty has urged both the migrant exporting countries, like Indonesia, and Hong Kong’s regulators to broaden oversight of the system in line with the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, and reform the rules that leave workers virtually without recourse against abuse. Part of the problem, according to Amnesty’s Muico, is that “There is no bilateral agreement aimed at protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers,” which leaves workers in limbo between two legal systems.
They may not be occupying Central, but the migrant workers are pushing for democracy from a different angle. The Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants declared, “In a global system that means to exploit rather than to empower, to prioritize business profits over the interests and rights of peoples, to struggle and to fight is justified.” With momentum for reform gaining, the group stated, “it will be up to the collective advocacy of the grassroots-based migrant movement to ensure that these changes occur and not be buried under the self-serving legalist approach of the Hong Kong government.”
With her abuser finally exposed, Erwiana offered forgiveness, but she still added, “justice must be upheld.” In a city where migrants are hired to do just about every task, upholding justice is the one job that Hong Kong’s citizens must now do themselves.