Domestic worker in cage

Author: Tang Kin Wa, Leo
When the Kartika’s case first broke out last month, the Hong Kong public was shocked at the maltreatment of migrant domestic workers.  Meanwhile, it has provided an opportunity for the public to gain an insight to the issues confronted by many migrant domestic workers.  When the verdict came out, the employers were justly sentenced for three to five years of imprisonment.
To their astonishment, it is impossible for many Hong Kong people to comprehend that a worker can be treated in such a horrid fashion for more than two years.  Many may also cast doubts over why Kartika did not escape from such an ordeal and continued to work for her employers.  Although Kartika’s case is an extreme case, the foreign domestic workers policy in Hong Kong is actually the perpetrator of such abuses.
Isabel Chang, a project staff of a local service centre handling labor cases of migrant workers, Mission for Migrant Workers, mentioned that the shelter of her organization is receiving over 300 residents each year, mainly domestic workers who suffer from a wide range of abuses.  Among those cases, a domestic worker was asked by her employer to iron clothes at two in the morning, however she fell asleep while carrying out her duty and accidentally destroyed a shirt.  As punishment, her employer put a burning iron on her hand.  This is only one of the examples of long working hour made possible by the mandatory live-in policy.
Apart from that, migrant domestic workers are forced to leave Hong Kong within 14 days upon termination of contract, even if it is a premature termination.  Under such regulation, the Immigration Department is in fact sanctioning employers to determine their employees’ length of stay.  With all these limitations, it only adds up the difficulties for migrant domestic workers to pursue their cases.
If a domestic worker is being abused and decides to file a lawsuit against her employer, she can only apply for a tourist visa in order to extend her stay, which means she is unable to work within that period.  As the proceedings may well last up to a matter of months or even years, many migrant domestic workers choose to give up on taking legal actions since it is impossible for them to make a living during the time period.  Obviously, victims such as Kartika are hard done by such policy.  As migrant domestic workers are forced to live with their employers, they have no place to go when they face problems in their workplace.
The day after the court ruling, Sring, the leader of Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, and me went onto a radio program to discuss the Kartikacase, as well as the policy on Migrant Domestic Workers.  During which, I proposed the revocation of the mandatory live-in policy.  However, an audience phoned in to express opposite views and said, “If migrant domestic workers are allowed to live-out, they will infect AIDS or get pregnant!”
This is exactly the kind of prejudice where discriminatory policy against migrant domestic workers is based upon.   To criticize employees’ personal conducts is neither appropriate nor respectful under any circumstances.  Such stigmas are so ridiculous that it would be unconceivable if they are applied to migrant workers of other professions, let alone local workers.  It is due to sheer prejudice that misleads the general public to conceive migrant domestic workers as their employer’s custodies.
Towards the end of the programme with only ten seconds left, I tried to explain the difference between local and migrant domestic workers; where they are meeting the needs of very different markets and people.  However, what I would like to say is: The conflict between employers and workers cannot be resolved by applying more limitations to migrant domestic workers.  In fact, the policy that reinforces misunderstandings and discriminations will only widen the gap between local and migrant domestic workers.
Everything will be better if we treat all workers alike.  Migrant domestic workers are workers, are human beings, like everybody else.