Foreign home employees, she knew, typically earn a lot larger salaries than she might discover at residence. Before she arrived, a recruitment company discovered her a job as a helper — a job that entails being a housekeeper, private chef, nanny and caretaker.
And like almost all helpers in Hong Kong, she was legally required to dwell in her employer’s residence.
What she mentioned adopted had been six months of bodily and emotional abuse so excruciating that she broke her contract and fled. “All my body died for him,” says Marta, now 37, who requested a pseudonym to guard her id. “He is the dark in my life.”
The mistreatment Marta describes isn’t unusual in Hong Kong, residence to greater than 390,000 helpers who largely come from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Making up almost 10% of the town’s labor power, these girls — solely about 1% of helpers are males — are integral to Hong Kong’s economic system and day by day life. Yet they’re additionally one of many metropolis’s most weak communities.
Issues of poor working and dwelling circumstances are widespread complaints.
Activists say the live-in rule, which is barely waived by the federal government in distinctive circumstances, forces girls to reside with probably abusive employers with few avenues for assist.
After Marta left her first employer, she mentioned she confronted intervals of homelessness and unemployment — at one level sleeping on a mattress on the ground of her church — earlier than discovering a brand new job.
Now, again on her ft, she’s pushing to vary the live-in rule — by taking it to courtroom.
A fast historical past
Foreign home employees started coming to Hong Kong within the 1970s, a decade of speedy financial growth that noticed the town rework from a poor manufacturing hub to a monetary capital with fashionable city infrastructure.
Helpers are usually answerable for cleansing their employers’ households, shopping for groceries, cooking meals, caring for youngsters and the aged, and a variety of different important duties.
There’s no such scarcity for part-time or non live-in companies, so permitting overseas employees to live-out would put them in direct competitors with native employees, the federal government argued.
But there are not any requirements or necessities for the way a lot minimal area helpers ought to be given, and the imprecise wording of “suitable” means some are made to sleep in poor circumstances, like within the lavatory or on the ground.
If a helper breaks the rule by dwelling out, they face a ban from working in Hong Kong — and the employer might be banned from hiring helpers. They might even be prosecuted for offering false info, punishable by imprisonment or a heavy nice.
No privateness, no relaxation
Since its introduction, the rule has attracted critics, who say it exacerbates the challenges helpers already face of their demanding roles.
For occasion, Hong Kong has lengthy struggled with restricted residential area and excessive housing costs. Many households dwell in cramped flats with barely area for his or her households, not to mention for helpers.
In this setting, helpers typically complain about lengthy hours, an absence of privateness, and uncomfortable sleeping preparations. There’s additionally the danger of abuse from their employers; when that occurs, leaving a job isn’t an possibility. Doing so would threaten their visa standing, employment, and skill to help their households.
Dolores Balladares, a 50-year-old from the Philippines, arrived in Hong Kong when she was 25.
She says that in her first job, she did not have her personal room. Instead, her employer arrange flimsy privateness curtains, much like these used round hospital beds, across the couch in the lounge. At the top of her work day, Balladares would draw the curtains round herself and wrestle to sleep.
Her employers and their youngsters would nonetheless be watching tv simply ft away in the identical room.
“It was so demeaning,” Balladares mentioned of that first job.
Furthermore, dwelling in means there isn’t any actual differentiation between many helpers’ workspace and private dwelling area: it is all the identical family. Work-life boundaries can dissolve totally, particularly since there are not any legal guidelines round most working hours per day or week.
Balladares mentioned she typically labored greater than 12 hours a day, generally waking at 5 a.m. and never sleeping till almost 1 a.m.
“It was a family of five, the parents were both working and the children were all studying, so I did everything,” she mentioned. “From preparing breakfast to bringing the kids to the school bus, then going to the market, ironing, teaching the children their homework, cleaning the house, and doing the cooking before I sleep at night.”
Though the legislation mandates helpers have to be given a full 24-hour relaxation day every week, that is typically not the case. On her off days, Balladares says she would nonetheless be requested to wash the household automobiles earlier than leaving to satisfy her buddies — and he or she was informed to be residence by eight p.m. so she might clear dishes and assist bathe the kids.
In the MFMW survey, greater than half of respondents mentioned that, like Balladares, they did not have their very own rooms, and as an alternative had “alternative sleeping arrangements.” Often helpers share a bunk mattress with one of many household’s youngsters.
More than half mentioned they labored between 11 and 16 hours per day, whereas 44% mentioned they labored greater than 16 hours. Nearly half mentioned they had been requested to work throughout their relaxation days. Another 29% mentioned they weren’t given sufficient meals, which an employer is legally required to provide, or given an allowance for it.
Choosing between security and earnings
Many helpers who face these circumstances, or bodily and sexual abuse, are sometimes reluctant to report it to authorities for concern of jeopardizing their livelihoods. Taking authorized motion could be financially and emotionally draining, and will probably deter future employers — not a straightforward threat to take when you’ve got relations again residence to help.
“The issue here is that the (live-in) rule renders them vulnerable,” mentioned Karen Ng, a case supervisor on the non-profit group HELP for Domestic Workers. “It’s forcing the worker to choose between their safety and making an income to support their families.”
Even if helpers do communicate out, they typically haven’t got sufficient proof for police to assist them, Ng added — once they dwell in, the one witnesses are the employers’ relations.
The most infamous case of helper abuse captured the town’s consideration in 2015, when Hong Kong housewife Law Wan-tung was discovered responsible of abusing her helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a 23-year-old lady from Indonesia.
Law frequently beat Erwiana with mop handles and coat hangers, and compelled her to sleep on the ground, for less than 5 hours an evening. Erwiana was solely given meager rations of meals, and warned that her dad and mom could be killed if she informed anybody.
Though Law was sentenced to jail for six years, no systemic change adopted.
In a report launched later that yr, the federal government mentioned altering the live-in rule would pressure the town’s housing and public transit programs, and would “go against the rationale for importing FDHs and the fundamental policy that local employees (including local domestic helpers) should enjoy priority in employment.”
A yr later, Marta filed her authorized problem in opposition to the rule.
The combat to vary the rule
In 2016, Marta utilized for a judicial evaluation, arguing the live-in rule was discriminatory and raised the danger of violating helpers’ basic rights.
Helpers simply need the choice to dwell out, she and different activists argue — and never all of them would essentially take it. Many helpers who’ve good working relationships with their employers recognize the cost-saving factor of dwelling in, which permits them to ship extra money residence to household.
Some employers additionally favor having an possibility if they do not really feel snug inviting a stranger to dwell of their residence.
In such instances, some employers comply with pay for his or her helpers to dwell in unlawful boarding homes, which provide shared rooms and customary areas. Helpers get their very own area, privateness, and extra management over their working hours — but in addition face heightened threat, as police sometimes conduct raids.
“I want freedom — the freedom to choose,” Marta mentioned. “Why not try to get freedom for both the employer and employee?”
But her first problem failed. In 2018, the decide dismissed the case and upheld the rule, arguing that in situations of mistreatment, the issue was the unhealthy employer — not the actual fact the helper lived in the identical family.
There was “no sufficient evidence” that the live-in rule considerably raised the danger of violating basic rights, or that the rule instantly brought about abuse, the decide wrote.
The authorities praised the dismissal, including in an announcement that helpers might “terminate the contract any time” in the event that they did not wish to dwell with their employers.
The assertion did not point out the 14-day rule, or the actual fact many helpers who go away their contracts legally need to return to their residence nations, earlier than reapplying for a job and visa another time.
The authorities’s response sparked anger amongst helpers and activists.
“We should not think of domestic workers as throwaways — ‘you don’t like the terms, don’t come,'” mentioned Ng. “They’re contributing a lot toward society, so why can’t we see them that way? We should take into consideration that they have rights, they have needs.”
Marta is now dwelling with a brand new employer who she says treats her effectively, respects her working hours, and gives her along with her personal room. She has discovered a caring neighborhood in her church and is working to heal — however says she’s nonetheless preventing the rule.
She has appealed the judgment and is ready for the courtroom to launch its determination. It’s not clear when the judgment will come.
“If the employer is nice, that’s fine — but how about the helpers who have no food, no room and no rest, then no option and no freedom?” she mentioned.
“I am not just fighting for myself but fighting for others. I am thinking about other people — for them to have an option.”