Migrant workers abused

Hong Kong is home to hundreds of thousands of women from Indonesia and the Philippines who work as “helpers” in pursuit of meager wealth. They are an indispensable part of the city’s vibrant economy and society. But incidents of abuse often stay hidden from public view. Follow one woman’s tale as she seeks to put her life back together after a horrific crime.

The Indonesian maid was asleep one night in a loft bed in the living room of her employer’s apartment, surrounded by a television and a dining room table. It had been her bedroom and her home for less than a month.

She said she awoke when she felt someone groping under her clothing. By the glow of the aquarium, she said she recognized her employer’s brother-in-law standing next to her bed.

The Indonesian maid. Hong Kong law prohibits identifying rape victims.BILLY H.C. KWOK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“What is it?” she later recalled saying, pulling up her covers. She was both startled and groggy. He smiled and walked away without speaking.

Over the next seven weeks, he cornered her repeatedly, sexually assaulting her in the kitchen and raping her in the bathroom of the 650-square-foot apartment, which was home to a family of five.

“I was treated like an animal and I had to serve him as if I was his wife,” the maid, a diminutive woman with a quiet voice, said in a later interview. “I really could not accept it.”

Yet she faced no good choices in what to do – a problem when things go wrong for the more than 325,000 maids from poor countries who work in Hong Kong and at times face brutal treatment and abuse.

If she wanted to keep her job, she would have to stay in the apartment because Hong Kong policy requires foreign maids to live with their employers.

If she fled for home, she would be shamed in the eyes of her husband and mired in the debt she racked up to get to Hong Kong.

If she sought a new employer and decided just to stay quiet about the assaults, Hong Kong rules say she would normally have to leave her job, go back home within two weeks and re-apply for a work visa, a move she couldn’t afford.

And if she turned in her assailant to the police and pursued a case – a daunting prospect given her limited familiarity with the local language and with the city – she would not be able to work until the case was resolved without special government permission because of a Hong Kong policy meant to discourage false complaints.

That predicament, advocates say, leaves maids vulnerable and near-powerless when they face mistreatment and can embolden employers to treat them badly.

“The system is so weighted against domestic helpers,” said Melville Boase, a solicitor in Hong Kong who has represented maids for three decades. “These ladies are not here for a get-rich scheme. Most of them are here to support their families,” he said.

In a survey of more than 3,000 live-in maids released last year by the Mission for Migrant Workers, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, 58% said they had experienced verbal abuse; 37% said they worked 16-hour days; 18% said they experienced physical abuse such as slapping and kicking; and 6% said they had been subjected to rape, touching or sexual comments in the homes of their employers. Some reported having to sleep in the bathroom or in the kitchen.

Connie’s comments: Each country in Asia should protect migrant workers who help increase their GDP in form of remittances in dollars sent by migrant workers.