The Evil People Do

Human Rights Violated in Hong Kong

Imagine the worst day of your life. Think for a while about a beating that leaves you stunned and panicking. You have a black eye, you’ve been kicked in the groin, your clothes are ripped and otherwise cut – all of them, not just what you’re wearing – your paper money has been torn up and flung to the ground. Clearly this isn’t a mugging because the money meant nothing. And it’s not a rape – the intent was purely malicious, meant to harm, and harm well, rather than violate. How do you feel?

Now think about one more thing. You were beaten for doing your job. Nothing more, nothing less. You were asked to clean up each day after workmen finished renovations at one of your employer’s rental properties. For three days you returned home to be beaten by your employer’s wife for no reason.

This is the life of one domestic helper in Hong Kong.

As I was writing a post on the meaning of freedom earlier I received a phone call detailing the case. The victim has now given evidence to the police, and has been taken to hospital. Two of the group I’m part of are with her and two more are on their way to the police station. They’ll meet another member of our group with yet another domestic helper who is speaking to the police. Still another woman who was beaten by her employer last week has just returned to my family’s apartment – she’s been staying with us since being threatened with a knife and grabbed at so hard her arms bruised.

Physical violence is a daily possibility for many domestic helpers in Hong Kong, but the inhumanity doesn’t end there. At a legal rights meeting on Sunday one woman spoke about only being given one day off a month; others said that they received no pay or were forced to work when sick. Last week another woman was asked to sign a rider on her contract barring her from visiting certain public places, amongst other draconian conditions. She refused, and her employer has been persecuting her ever since.

What links all of these cases, and many more, is that they each involve employers violating the civil and human rights of people who come from other countries. There’s nothing as grandiose as state abuse of power involved – just people being evil to people less fortunate than themselves then returning to their tranquil middle-class lives. The police seem genuinely surprised that it’s happening and most people here would deny that it could happen. Foreign domestic helpers are abused and otherwise mistreated in purely domestic situations, set apart from prying eyes and waging tongues. Like other forms of domestic violence, the victims most often silence themselves for fear of reprisal should they take a stand.

Evil wins because it dares the victim to ask for change, and few societies really want that. We’re working every day to make a difference in a few lives, involving NGOs to do what we can’t, thinking of new ways to identify those brave women who have had enough, who understand human rights are those things that keep them alive. Our task is to make change acceptable, one day at a time.

If you’re reading this in Hong Kong and know of a domestic helper who is being abused or otherwise mistreated, please ask her to contact the police in her district immediately. The phone numbers are available on the police contact page, and the emergency number is 999. The following organisations also provide invaluable help, every day.

Helpers for Domestic Helpers: phone 2523-4020
Mission for Migrant Workers: phone 2522-8264

If you live outside of Hong Kong, please tell someone else about what’s going on here. Every word, anywhere, will help to break the silence.

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4 Responses to The Evil People Do

  1. Greg Sadler says:

    Wow. In my (admittedly limited) experience of the ‘hired help’ they are often taken for granted or ignored and occasionally disrespected. I recall some children raised with the hired-help in the house who had become accustomed to demanding the channel on the T.V be changed. They were so lazy they’d given up on the remote.

    But I don’t understand physical abuse. Even if you consider the person an animal or a mere object, why go to the effort of hitting them? I don’t beat on my dog or my chair? Is something else going on here?

    Also, I’m not sure if the best way to defend these people is with the language of human rights. I think what they need are legal rights in the form of working conditions and enforcement of battery and assault laws. Bringing ‘human rights’ into issues like this is rarely constructive.

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Hi Greg, I appreciate your argument about the weakness of many appeals to human rights, but in this case civil and human rights are linked by a number of cross-contraventions, not the least of which is the deprivation of the rights to free choice of accommodation (which, admittedly, isn’t sanctioned under international law), freedom from racism (which is covered under international and now domestic law) and some of the provisions of the UN Convention on Cultural and Economic Freedom, which are part of international law. This is the case because the foreign domestic helper contract here in Hong Kong is designed to discriminate against non-local labour, and the Immigration Department’s ‘interpretation’ of that contract, which is most carefully removed from the actual wording (and can thus break any international law it wants) is clearly discriminatory in ways that most countries would never get away with.

    But Hong Kong does get away with it because its own legal framework is unusual – it is neither truly part of China nor not part of China. As a Special Administrative Region it has much more scope to operate outside the domestic rule of law than most other jurisdictions. And it does.

    There is another element here – most domestic-help situations involve a government sanctioned deprivation of basic freedoms on the part of employers. Domestic helpers in Hong Kong are often treated like retarded little children, down even to being given lists of instructions about exactly how to go about their days. I’m actually summarising a case we’re dealing with at the moment. So once again, civil and human rights are inseparable.

    Of course, most of what we do on the ground here is give personal help and direct people through the correct legal channels. That process takes up most evenings and all weekends for me, and often large chunks of the day for my wife and 4 other people. All up there are around 10 of us coordinating with legal-help NGOs, setting up our own organisation, lobbying for change and doing the everyday things that are too uninteresting to write about.

    For instance, the woman I mentioned in this post is staying with my family now and I spent 10 hours along with 4 other people at the police station yesterday, providing support for her. Because she was beaten so badly she needs friends more than anything, and that’s what she has.

    To give another example (leading back to civil and human rights combined) we also have woman staying with us who was subjected to violence and threatened with a kitchen knife (she was also sacked summarily, which is illegal). Unfortunately the one witness did not come forward, so the police can’t prosecute the employer. Her case is now with the Immigration Department and the Labour Department (both for breach of contract by the employer).

    We also cooperate with the Mission for Migrant Workers here, which helped the woman force the employment agency she was hired through to pay back a loan that it compelled her to take out to cover illegally high agency fees. The loan amount was the equivalent of almost 2 years of wages for the woman, before interest. By law the agency can take a placement fee of 10 percent of one month’s wages.

    This happens to almost all of the women placed through agencies – the government simply turns a blind eye. In the case of Indonesian helpers, the Indonesian government has made these agency fees compulsory. Again, the Hong Kong government does nothing to enforce its own law once the helpers are in town, so Indonesian helpers can often be working here for many years paying off loans that are illegal in Hong Kong (with amounts deducted from their wages by employers and sent to the Hong Kong-based agencies) until they actually earn any money to send home. Human trafficking like this is clearly a contravention of human rights and civil rights with government complicity.

    But getting back to those aspects of the situation that are more civil than human rights violations, we’re working or have worked recently with 6 other women who have been victims of fraud on the part of employers (though it is not recognised as such under the law), intimidation, constant expressions of racism and blatant contract violations. We hear news of more every day. My point in this blog when I write about these issues is to stretch them out to advertise their full implications, because the civil and criminal law aspects are extremely tedious and often subject to ongoing proceedings that I can’t comment about.

    Still, your point about violence is interesting because it made me think back to the original reason I decided to take the human rights tangent. It is extremely difficult, given Hong Kong’s glossy international image (which is believed as much at home as it is overseas), to make people realise that this is happening daily to probably tens of thousand of women – maybe as high as one hundred thousand (there are around 250,000 domestic helpers here at last count). We began with a presumption that some women were affected, but the more we work with NGOs and the women themselves, the more alarming it becomes. I don’t understand it either, but it’s happening every day.

    There is, I should mention in closing, a sizeable literature now questioning the separation of civil and human rights, which has also influenced my choice of perspective (or at least implied perspective at times). But ultimately it’s a case of covering all bases – and the grind of ten hours in a police station, for instance, doesn’t make for interesting reading. Although we do have a phone cam video of one of us singing the theme from Gilligan’s Island . . .

    A final, more serious, thought – at some stage I should be able to sit down and write a more coherent post outlining exactly why I choose to discuss both civil and human rights. This has been an interesting exercise in laying out some of the circumstances!

  3. Greg Sadler says:

    Thanks for your reply. You inspired me to write a brief on my blog about the short-comings of Human Rights, you might find it interesting.

    I think one of the key reason human rights are useful to the work your doing is they carry a huge emotive weight. If you’re trying to smash through “Hong Kong’s glossy international image” I agree that Human Rights discourse is perhaps the best method to do it.

    But regardless of which legal approach is best, I think no one (sensible) is going to argue that you’re not doing the substantively right thing. Keep up the good work, I’m sure it makes a world of difference to lives of these woman that they have people prepared to do everything they can to help.

  4. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks Greg, I’ll take a look at your post. Yes, it’s the emotive weight that usually grabs the attention – it works as a kind of shorthand to convey imagery that’s fairly common currency.

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