Where sisterhood ends: The victim in your own home
When the case of 23-year-old Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih made international headlines earlier this year, readers were shocked to hear of the physical abuse that left the once vibrant young woman nearly disabled. Sulistyaningsih worked in the home of a Hong Kong woman who allegedly slapped, punched, and beat her with household items, and burned her feet black with boiling water, news accounts said. After eight months, Sulistyaningsih was allowed to return to Indonesia but only because her injuries had left her unable to work.
Photos of Sulistyaningsih’s scarred and emaciated body shocked the world, sparking widespread protests. But just as shocking to the international community was the subsequent revelation that her employer—Law Wan-tung, a 40-year-old mother of two—had been charged with the attacks.
Yet solidarity—the kind that, in another life, might have inspired a woman like Law Wan-tung to demand justice for a girl like Erwiana—is not an alien concept in Hong Kong.
In the 1970s, a form of feminism began to take root in the city, which is known as the Fragrant Harbour, when Chinese women, mostly homemakers, started to enter the workforce to satisfy the growing demand for labor. The result: more political clout and the ability to lobby more aggressively for workplace equality and protection against domestic abuse. Hong Kongers now enjoy a thriving middle class—all thanks to an active female workforce.
But while the decades of economic growth in Hong Kong have meant progress for its working women, that has not been the case for the thousands of female Filipino, Indonesian, and Thai domestic workers who have taken on the mantle of housework and elderly care in Hong Kong homes. Instead, deeply entrenched sexism has contributed to their horrific abuse—often at the hands of their mistresses.
For young immigrant girls employed as domestic workers, the message is clear: Your presence is a problem.
Although the spotlight may currently be on Hong Kong, the abuse of domestic workers is a pandemic. Human Rights Watch estimates there are 53 million domestic workers worldwide, the majority of whom are women and girls, and many of whom are migrants. And while these workers are entrusted with the well-being of the families they care for, they are also among the most exploited and abused workers.
From Saudi Arabia to Singapore, New York to Los Angeles, women and children often work 18-hour days, seven days a week, for pay far below the minimum wage. They are locked in their place of employment. They and their children are threatened with deportation. They are subjected to physical and sexualized violence. According to a statistical report released by the New York-based Domestic Workers United in 2012, 67 percent of live-in domestics in the United States are paid below minimum wage. And while the global community has been slow to classify this as a form of trafficking, advocates say it is little more than modern-day slavery.
With abuse running the gamut from wage issues to physical violence, so do the perpetrators. In the same places that women are treated as second-class citizens, the introduction of a young, foreign woman can open up the possibility of clashes: the domestic worker often becomes an easy scapegoat for the frustrations of women whose rights have already been restricted. This may explain why so many women are complicit in the abuse—if not actively participating.
Both the cases of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Kartika Puspitasari, who was left tied in the kitchen while the family she worked for went on holiday, involved a female employer and, in January, a 58-year-old woman was arrested for assaulting her Bangladeshi maid.
They were not alone. Hundreds of domestic workers in Hong Kong have reported friction with the lady of the house. A 2014 report issued by Amnesty International documented the abuse faced by one worker, “NS,” a 26-year-old woman from Jakarta:
The wife physically abused me on a regular basis. She forcibly cut my hair with the pretext that my hair had fallen in their food but that was absurd because I didn’t cook for them. Once she ordered her two dogs to bite me. I had about ten bites on my body, which broke the skin and bled. The wife was ecstatic – she recorded it on her mobile phone, which she constantly played back laughing. When one of the dogs vomited, she forced my face down to the vomit ordering me to eat it, but I refused. When I asked her why she kept abusing me in this way, she told me that it was because she was bored so this is how she passed the time.
Approximately 300,000 domestic workers live in Hong Kong, according to the Mission for Migrant Workers, an organization that works on behalf of domestic workers in Hong Kong. A 2012 survey conducted by the organization found that the majority of these women were abused in some way: 58 percent of workers reported being verbally abused, while 18 percent said they had suffered physical trauma. Six percent said they had been sexually assaulted.
But sexual abuse of domestic helpers, as these women are called in Hong Kong, is more common than statistics suggest, according to Doris Lee.
Lee, a former employer of domestic workers, is also the co-founder of Open Door, an agency that advocates for better conditions for domestic workers in Hong Kong. Groups like Lee’s target laws that exploit vulnerable populations. One such policy in Hong Kong is the live-in rule, which forces workers to live with their employers, thus confining them to environments that are often abusive. Another is the two-week rule, which allows workers only 14 days to find new employment before being deported.
But while legislation on paper can be rewritten, Lee says there is also a more subtle dynamic at play between a young domestic worker and her mistress, one that’s rarely discussed openly and is therefore more difficult to address.
“The more common thing is a sort of irritation with girls who, for example, wear nail polish, have low-cut T-shirts,” Lee told me. “I had a friend who was irritated because [the worker] wore tight shirts where sometimes her belly would show.”
According to Lee, some agencies that train young maids address this by attempting to de-sexualize a worker’s appearance: “When they first arrive in Hong Kong, they have short hair, they’re wearing baggy pants, baggy men’s shirts, and they're supposed to maintain that code of dressing when they work for their employer—to totally avoid any conflict with the female employer,” Lee said.
Even before setting foot in their country of employ, female workers are already blamed for any unwanted sexual attention they might receive on the job. Myths that portray helpers as lazy, deceitful, or sexually irresponsible compound the problem, causing employers to be suspicious of even hiring immigrant workers. Some of these prejudices were openly discussed at a panel hearing on domestic workers in March: during a panel discussion, Harris Yeung, a Liberal Party youth committee member, said that helpers could fall pregnant if they were allowed to live away from their employers.
But Lee and her colleagues at Open Door hope to battle the power of these stereotypes by educating employers. Lee said that women who are suspicious of or threatened by young girls in their homes may sometimes turn a blind eye to abuses that occur under their own roof. This leaves helpers at the mercy of agencies that are often indifferent.
Lee shared one particularly disturbing account of a worker who was raped two or three times by male relatives of her employer. The worker said that when she reported it to her agency she was told to wait until it happened again and collect the semen as evidence. When the young woman was raped again, she simply ran away. Her fate was unknown, Lee said.
Lee offered another horrific anecdote:
I’ve heard of one case where a woman fell out the window. The story that I heard later was that that helper had been harassed by the husband, but then there was confrontation between the helper and the wife. She tried to tell the wife, and the wife got angry and … wouldn't believe her and then blamed her, and then the helper got upset and then she jumped, or fell, or something.
Still, the outcry over recent events in Hong Kong has given activists the ammunition they need. Months before Sulistyaningsih’s story unleashed protests worldwide, Hong Kong activist Tom Grundy and other rights groups were preparing to launch The Helpers Campaign, an initiative aimed at consolidating and amplifying the voices of domestic workers and their supporters. The campaign, which has used the backlash from Law Wan-tung’s arrest to put pressure on Hong Kong lawmakers, is calling for the two-week rule be scrapped and for helpers to be given a fair wage and be allowed to live independently. So far, the Hong Kong government has been unresponsive to calls for reform.
During a Skype interview, Grundy voiced his indignation. “We believe [domestic helpers] are the backbone of the middle class and the backbone of the economy,” he said. “If you think about feminism in Hong Kong, it all boils down and relates to domestic helpers—and this is the thanks they get.”
But until laws and public perceptions change, Hong Kong’s helpers—and domestic workers everywhere—will continue to be caught in a friendless system, where they often find themselves at odds with the very women who might otherwise be their allies.
More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexual harassment, Sexualized violence, Domestic violence