Hong Kong domestic workers struggle in risky jobs

Jack Chang - The Philippine Star

HONG KONG (AP) — At every stop, the path from Tritin Kartika's poor Indonesian hometown to her job as a live-in maid in a Hong Kong apartment put her at risk of exploitation.

Back home, she signed an employment contract that required her to give up most of her first six months of wages, to repay her hiring agency for travel and other costs. When she arrived in her new city, the agency confiscated her passport to make sure she paid her debt.

And she soon saw what many migrant workers do if they lose or abandon their jobs: A friend took her to the bars of Hong Kong's Wan Chai red-light district, where many Indonesian and Filipino women earn money having sex with foreign men.

"I just wanted a better salary, something more than what I could make at home," said Kartika, 32, whose 5-year-old daughter is still in Indonesia. "I just wanted to help my family."

More than 160,000 Indonesians, almost all women, have taken similarly perilous routes to jobs as maids, nannies and housekeepers in Hong Kong, lured by salaries as much as five times higher than at home. Now, they're mourning two of their own — Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih, former domestic workers in their 20s who were found stabbed to death last weekend in the luxury apartment of British investment banker Rurik George Caton Jutting.

Jutting, 29, has been charged with two counts of murder in a case that has shocked the former British colony and shed light on the often hidden and dire circumstances facing many of these women.

All told, 320,000 foreign domestic workers clean, cook and care for children in Hong Kong, making up nearly 5 percent of the city's population, according to a 2013 report by the human rights group Amnesty International. Most hail from Indonesia and the Philippines, and together they send home hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The women's slayings elicit a mixture of horror and shame among Indonesians.

"They understand very well when people become trapped in those kinds of forced conditions," said Eni Lestari, a domestic worker who helps run the advocacy group Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body. "But they also feel bad and ask why people are taking these sex worker jobs."

Domestic workers and labor activists say such women are made vulnerable to abuse by Indonesian laws that require people who seek work abroad to go through hiring agencies, as well as Hong Kong regulations that tie domestic workers to their employers, even requiring that they sleep in their places of work.

Workers end up deep in debt and vulnerable to fraud and abuse by the agencies, said Norma Muico, a migrant rights researcher with Amnesty International. Many women endure sexual harassment and abysmal living conditions but are legally unable to move out of their employers' houses without giving up their work visas.

Hong Kong's domestic worker policies have drawn the attention of several U.N. human rights committees, with two of them calling for the repeal of the live-in requirement.

"This is exploitation at its highest level," Muico said. "Very rarely do you see this type of manipulation and way of extracting money from migrant domestic workers."

Like Kartika, Mujiasih and Ningsih had signed contracts requiring they pay their agencies back for travel and other costs, according to Lestari, who said she has talked to the women's relatives and friends.

Typical salaries for maids in Hong Kong run about $500 a month, according to Lestari's group. Agencies can require workers to give up about $335 from each paycheck.

After Mujiasih was fired, she chose a sadly common option, Indonesian officials say. She overstayed her work visa and hit the bars and nightclubs of Wan Chai to make money off the mostly Western male customers — a much more lucrative, if risky, job.

Kartika is done repaying the employment agency and has her passport back. She said she is sending money home and has no interest in returning to Wan Chai.

"It's not really good for me," she said. "I want to do something better, something positive."

Indonesian Consulate official Rafail Walangitan said his government was aware of problems such as the high fees paid to hiring agencies and the conditions in some employers' houses, but he said the agencies play an important role in connecting Indonesians with Hong Kong households hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.

"You can imagine how they can come to a country without someone to take care of everything here," Walangitan said.

Hong Kong officials have defended their requirements that domestic workers live in their employers' houses by pointing out that the city lets in foreign workers only because there is a shortage of local live-in help.

Hong Kong also has been criticized for requiring domestic workers to leave the city within two weeks after losing their jobs. Responding to the U.N. Human Rights Committee last year, city officials said that mandate was "required for maintaining effective immigration control and eliminating chances of (foreign domestic helpers) overstaying in Hong Kong or working illegally after termination of contracts."

Yet many women are working illegally here. Ningsih's last Hong Kong stay was on a tourist visa.

Her father, Achmad Kaliman, said she told him she was going to save her wages to build a house back home.

"She insisted that she go, arguing that she has to work for the sake of her son's future," Kaliman said. "She said she would work at the restaurant, in the front section, where she just asked guests what they wanted to eat or drink."

For a Filipino domestic worker, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Babylen, the past year and a half in Hong Kong has been a bitter disappointment.

An injury on the job led to her dismissal in March. Now, she's waiting to receive compensation while sleeping in a shelter opened for unemployed domestic workers. The former schoolteacher and mother of two boys said she was forced to go abroad after her husband died.

"It seemed like slavery to me," she said of working for a Pakistani family in Hong Kong. "All day or night, I can't say no because I might lose my job. I just want to feed my family. Everyone depends on me."

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