A poster girl for torture in Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - "Welcome to Asia's world city." That was the greeting Hong Kong's tourism board extended to the more than 50 million foreign visitors who came to the city last year to wine, dine, shop and enjoy the bright lights and sky-scraping architecture of one of the most vibrant, pulsating places on the planet.
For the 312,000 foreign domestic workers employed in Hong Kong, however, a more accurate salutation might be: "Welcome to Asia's third-world city." For them, life is defined by cramped quarters, low wages and, far too often, exploitation and abuse.
And now they have a grotesque poster girl for their plight: 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid now languishing
in a hospital in her native country after allegedly suffering repeated incidents of torture at the hands of her Hong Kong employer. The Hong Kong government also faces pressure from Indonesia over the maid's alleged treatment.
The horrid details of her case - laid out by Prosecutor Catherine Ko Po-chui in a Hong Kong courtroom last week - have shocked and embarrassed this city of 7.1 million people and also prompted thousands of foreign domestic workers to take to the streets with demands for better protection from the Hong Kong government and the employment agencies that recruit and place them.
An overwhelming majority of these workers are young women. About half of them are Indonesians who, together with workers from the Philippines, account for 98% of the foreign domestic help in Hong Kong.
According to the prosecutor, Erwiana's former employer, Law Wan-tung, 44, assaulted her with a mop, vacuum cleaner tube, hanger and ruler. In addition, Law allegedly banged the maid's head against a wall.
The attacks, Ko told the court, left Erwiana with a fractured nose, broken jaw, chipped teeth and swelling of the brain, among other injuries. She had been working in Hong Kong for eight months before her return to Indonesia earlier this month.
After Erwiana's case came to light, two other Indonesian maids who had worked for Law stepped forward with similar claims.
Law, reportedly a former beautician, was arrested on January 19 at Hong Kong International Airport as she attempted to board a flight to Thailand and now faces seven charges for her alleged abuse of the three maids: one count of causing grievous bodily harm with intent, one of assault causing bodily harm, one of common assault and four counts of criminal intimidation.
Law, who has not yet entered a plea, was released by a Hong Kong district court last Wednesday on bail of HK$1 million (US$128,900). The case was adjourned to March 25 and may be transferred to a higher court.
A team of four Hong Kong police officers was dispatched to the hospital in Sragen, Central Java, where Erwiana is convalescing, to take a statement from her. It is not clear whether she will return to Hong Kong to testify.
It is clear, however, that, after initially turning a blind eye to Erwiana's case, the Hong Kong police and government are now treating it as a priority, with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying saying he is "highly concerned at the case as Hong Kong is a lawful society", adding: "Our laws do not allow anyone to impose violence or torture anyone's body and mind."
Secretary for Labor and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung promised that authorities would vigorously pursue the case, stating that the agency that employed Erwiana, Chan's Asia Recruitment Center, may also face charges.
The case has been taken up by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who reportedly spoke to Erwiana and her father on the phone. "Believe me, the law will be enforced, justice will be served; what's important is we will help with [your] treatment," he told the maid.
He told her father he had raised the case with Hong Kong's leaders. "I am sad and concerned that your daughter has suffered this tragedy. I am also angry at those who have committed this evil," he told Erwiana's father.
While such official pledges will no doubt be welcome news to Erwiana and her fellow domestic helpers in Hong Kong, the fact is that city officials were shamed into recognition of her case and, although they are belatedly vowing to punish her alleged torturer, they have shown no signs of changing an employment system that is inherently exploitative and invites the very abuse that they now affirm will be redressed.
As photos of a grotesquely battered and bruised Erwiana went viral, people all over the world had to wonder why Hong Kong authorities didn't even bother to question her when she hobbled through immigration to board a flight back to Indonesia, reportedly having been told to go home as she was no longer fit to work.
And when first asked about the case by the media, Hong Kong police said they had no reason to act as no charges had been filed. Obviously, now that the case has gained international attention, that mindset has changed.
But the change in official attitude may have come too late for the city to avoid a lawsuit. Human rights lawyers are urging Erwiana and her family to sue the Hong Kong government, maintaining that authorities failed in their obligation under Article 3 of the city's 1997 Bill of Rights Ordinance to protect her from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".
If Erwiana's father, Rohmad Suputra, visiting his daughter in hospital last week, described her as being a picture of good health when she departed for Hong Kong last May but said of her return to Indonesia: "I was shocked and very sad. She looked like a skeleton with bad injuries when she came home."
Erwiana's doctor, Iman Fadhli, has said the swelling of her brain is preventing her from walking.
The sensational nature of Erwiana's ordeal has attracted the attention of human rights lawyer Robert Tibbo, who advised whistleblower Edward Snowden during his month-long sojourn in Hong Kong last year. Tibbo maintains that Erwiana could sue the city for failing to fulfill its legal commitment to provide protection to victims of torture, citing the indifference to the serious nature of her injuries shown by immigration officers at the airport.
Mostly lost in reports of the lurid details of Erwiana's treatment, however, is a long-needed rethink of the employment system for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.
The injuries sustained by Erwiana may be among the worst to come to light in Hong Kong, but hers is not an isolated case. One in five foreign domestic workers in the city reports being physically abused, according to a recent survey by Mission for Migrant Workers - and, of course, verbal and psychological abuse is far higher.
A report issued by Amnesty International in November found that domestic helpers in Hong Kong are subject to widespread abuse, including physical violence, rape, inadequate provision of food and long working hours.
Earlier this month, a Chinese University professor was arrested for allegedly assaulting her 50-year-old maid, and in September a couple were imprisoned for beating their Indonesian helper with a bicycle chain, wounding her with a paper cutter and scalding her with a hot iron.
Appalling incidents of this nature are likely to persist if the government does nothing to change a system that requires foreign domestic workers to live with their employers, forces them to return to their home country if they have not found another job within two weeks of termination of employment, and allows employment agencies to charge preposterously high placement fees that keep workers perennially in debt and thus tied to any employer, no matter how abusive, they can find.
Because space is at a premium in Hong Kong apartments, the live-in requirement means that 30% of domestic workers do not have a room of their own but must sleep in kitchens, closets, bathrooms or hallways - again, according to Mission for Migrant Workers. That alone is arguably a form of abuse.
Taken all together, however, the legal shackles on domestic workers create a perverse environment of dependency that is ripe for exploitation and maltreatment. Many maids accept salaries far below the minimum wage of HK$4,010 (US$517) a month lest they be sacked by their employers for "poor performance" and then find themselves penniless back in their home country two weeks later.
So while Hong Kong officials - from the chief executive on down - are now making all the right noises of sympathy and pledging justice for Erwiana, they have yet to offer any legal protections that would prevent such unconscionable crimes from happening again.
Until they do, the torture and abuse will continue.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1.
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