Hong Kong Employer Guilty of Abusing Indonesian Domestic Helpers

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

A court in Hong Kong on Tuesday found a former employer guilty of 18 counts of torture and assault of two domestic helpers from Indonesia, in a case that has highlighted the city's treatment of its mostly female population of domestic migrant workers from Southeast Asia, sparking growing calls for reform.

In a landmark case brought against a former employer by a domestic helper in Hong Kong, Law Wan-tung, 44, was found guilty by the Kwun Tong District Court of torture, causing grievous bodily harm and criminal intimidation of Indonesian nationals Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Tutik Lestari Ningsih.

Law, who was arrested in January 2014, was found not guilty of two charges of abuse and threatening behavior against a third Indonesian woman, Nurhasanah.

District Court judge Amanda Woodcock found that Law had punched Erwiana so hard in one incident that her front teeth broke, and had in another cut her mouth by forcing a vacuum cleaner inside it.

Woodcock, who said she had made her ruling solely on the basis of testimony by the Indonesian witnesses, said Law had also stripped Erwiana naked and thrown cold water at her, before pointing a fan at her, during winter.

"[Erwiana] was, for want of a better word, a prisoner in those premises," Woodcock told the court, in a reference to immigration rules requiring domestic helpers to live in their employer's home.

"She was completely isolated, and [this] helps explain why this abuse could go on for so long without her retaliating or anyone knowing."

"When Erwiana left Hong Kong she was a shadow of her former self," she said, adding that Erwiana was a "simple, village girl" who became more subservient, the more Law abused her.

Call for maximum sentence

During the 16-day trial, Erwiana told the court that she was frequently beaten, locked up, threatened and denied food by Law over an eight-month period.

Law, who has been ordered to pay back more than H.K. $28,000 (U.S. $3,600) in wage arrears, also confiscated Erwiana's passport, failed to pay her wages and did not grant her any days off, according to London-based rights group Amnesty International.

Erwiana, whose case has been championed by migrant workers' rights groups in Hong Kong, welcomed the verdict, and called for a maximum life jail term for Law.

"I hope that my ex-employer Law Wan-tung ... will receive maximum sentence," she told a news conference in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Less than that, she said, "would not be enough compared to what she did to me and other victims."

"She should receive life imprisonment for what she did, and for the fact that she does not have any remorse for her actions," she told a news conference.

Erwiana also added her voice to growing calls for a change in the rules governing migrant domestic helpers, who are subject to more restrictions than other types of visa-holder.

"To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings, and stop treating us like slaves," she said. "As human beings, we all have equal rights."

"I hope the Hong Kong government will reform their policies that discriminate [against] migrant workers, policies that make us more exploited," she said, citing rules requiring domestic helpers to live with their employers and a two-week deadline forcing them to leave Hong Kong if they lose their jobs.

'Damning indictment'

Amnesty International said the verdict was a "damning indictment" of the widespread exploitation of tens of thousands of women in Hong Kong.

The case should be "a wake-up call" for the government to reform a system that encourages the abuse of domestic helpers, the group said in a statement on its website.

"The Hong Kong authorities can no longer bury their heads in the sand and dismiss horrific abuses as isolated incidents," Amnesty International migrant rights researcher Norma Kang Muico said.

"Concrete action to end laws and regulations that foster such horrific abuse is long overdue."

"The guilty verdict is a damning indictment of the government's failure to reform the system that traps women in a cycle of abuse and exploitation," she said.

Ruling welcomed

The Hong Kong government welcomed the court's ruling.

"This underlines the importance that the government and the court attach to protecting the labor rights as well as the well-being of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong," labour and welfare secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters.

A police spokesman said the case could serve as a deterrent against similar abuses, and underlined the rule of law in the former British colony.

The Hong Kong-based Mission For Migrant Workers group said the mandatory live-in requirement makes female migrant workers more vulnerable to different kinds of abuse.

"We reiterate our call for a live-out option for foreign domestic workers in light of the slave-like conditions experienced by Erwiana and [others]," the group said in a statement.

"It's about time that the Hong Kong government makes true its promises to sincerely address the issues exposed in the Erwiana case."

The group cited 2013 research showing that many employers force their live-in helpers to be on call 24 hours a day, as well as subjecting them to cramped sleeping arrangements, sometimes on the living room floor on in a cupboard or bathroom in cramped Hong Kong flats.

"It means that foreign migrant workers are forced to surrender their privacy, their health, their security and their safety," the group said.





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