Former Hong Kong Employer Jailed For Six Years Over Abuse of Indonesian Maids

Rights groups welcome the verdict, but call for a change in rules that encourage abuse of vulnerable women.

Indonesian former maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih (C) leaves the court of justice in Hong Kong, Feb. 10, 2015.

A court in Hong Kong on Friday handed down a six-year prison term to the former employer of two domestic helpers from Indonesia after finding her guilty of 18 counts of torture and assault.

In a case that has shone a spotlight on the city's treatment of its mostly female population of domestic migrant workers from Southeast Asia, Law Wan-tung, 44, was jailed for six years and fined U.S.$1,934 for assaults and mistreatment of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Tutik.

District Court judge Amanda Woodcock found Law guilty of grievous bodily harm and criminal intimidation against her former domestic helpers, in spite of the former beautician's not guilty plea to all but one charge, that of not buying insurance cover for Erwiana.

In passing sentence, Woodcock cited "damning evidence" against Law, that showed "how little care and kindness the defendant showed" for Erwiana.

Woodcock also called for reforms to current laws requiring domestic workers to live in their employers' homes, saying the practice encourages abuse.

Speaking to reporters after the sentencing, Erwiana said she was pleased that Law was going to prison, but would have been happier with a heavier jail term, as the six-year sentence suggested that the government "is OK with that."

"It is not OK," she said. "Violation of our human rights is not OK. Slavery is not OK."

She repeated her previous call for a change to the live-in rule, adding: "I hope that the Hong Kong government will treat us domestic workers as workers."

'Wake-up call'


Rights campaigners welcomed the sentence, saying it was a "wake-up call" for the city's government.

"I think this is a wake-up call for the government," Eman Villanueva, a spokesman for the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, a rights group that supported Erwiana throughout the trial, told a local radio show.

"For the first time, a court has virtually castigated the government."

He said the group welcomed the sentence, which was close to the seven-year maximum sentence that district-level courts in Hong Kong are permitted to hand down.

"I think six years is not all that bad, although ... we would have wanted a longer prison term," Villanueva told government broadcaster RTHK. "[But] in the context that the maximum term is seven, six is quite acceptable."

"This is the first time that the court, or part of the government actually acknowledged ... that the mandatory live-in rule actually creates a very, very vulnerable working and living condition for migrant domestic workers," he said, citing International Labor Organization standards which say governments shouldn't make living in mandatory.

According to Villanueva, Hong Kong still lacks up-to-date legislation to prevent modern slavery and trafficking offenses, however.

"She was imprisoned practically for eight months, but the only charge that can be filed is nonprovision of rest-day," he said.

"There's no law that prevents forced labor. There's no law that prevents trafficking and slavery."

Longer sentences sought

Tang Kin-wa, a director of the Federation of Asian Domestic Workers' Unions, said that serious cases of domestic worker abuse should be tried in future at the High Court, which has the power to hand down maximum life sentences.

"They could have sent this case straight to the High Court, but they didn't," Tang told RFA.

"This was a problem, because this was a serious case, with 19 charges laid, and yet the maximum sentence at this court is seven years."

A report published by the Hong Kong-based Mission For Migrant Workers group in 2013 showed that many employers force their live-in helpers, who already earn far less than the minimum wage, to be on call 24 hours a day.

Many of Hong Kong's 330,000, predominantly female, domestic helpers are subjected to cramped sleeping arrangements, sometimes on the living room floor on in a cupboard or bathroom in tiny Hong Kong apartments, the report found.

Reported by Lam Lok-tung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.