And Now for the Bad News

22 January 2009

A Savage Beating Unpunished

Hope, by My Own Worst Nightmare, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)Hope is a fragile emotion, smashed so easily on the jagged rocks of life. In my last post I wrote with a degree of optimism that the maltreatment of domestic helpers in Hong Kong might just receive a little more attention in future, given a small increase in recent newspaper coverage. And that could still come about, because the case I’m about to describe might yet make the news. We’re working on it, and the circumstances deserve more coverage than I can attract here. But it just won’t come to the attention of the courts.

In early August last year I wrote about an Indonesian domestic helper who came to stay with me and my family after suffering repeated beatings at the hands of her employer’s wife. She was bruised from head to groin and had reported to both a local hospital and the North Lantau police station. We were confident that she would have her day in court, given the evidence of assault, an account of earlier sexual assault by her employer, and a witness not only to her condition every morning, but also to her being forced to work at another premises, outside the scope of her employment contract.

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Success, of Sorts

20 October 2008

A Change of Status in the Vicky Flores Case

Sometimes success can bring a little melancholy, a pause to recall what else could have happened when everything you’ve done has really been in defence of something second best. Just over six months ago Vicky Flores disappeared from Discovery Bay here on Lantau island in Hong Kong. Her body washed up near a ferry pier on the other side of the island a few days later. From the outset it seemed that the police were not culturally competent enough to investigate the case, and were lacking in enthusiasm under any circumstance. A week passed before they bothered to interview neighbours. The death of a Filipino domestic helper in Hong Kong is not always a cause of urgent concern.

In the intermission, as the Justice for Vicky concern group has asked, agitated, accused, coordinated and waited, our primary aim has been to achieve just what the title suggests – Justice, in whatever form it may come. The police seem to have passed an open finding to the Coroner’s Court, which is hardly satisfactory but far superior to their earlier inclination towards suicide with some sort of fanciful ‘occult’ involvement.

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Policed to Meet You

8 October 2008

Ignorance of the Law on the Hong Kong Beat

Allow me to begin with a hypothetical. Imagine a world in which police work was based on presumption rather than defence of the law. At times there might be sufficient coincidence of those two positions – should an offence be committed against you, now and then you might be protected under what could pass as fortification of the public good. But at others, many others, the good constable you meet could well presume that you are breaking the law, even when you’ve been the victim of harm. And because you could never judge which side of the presumption you might land on there is a very good chance you would be cowed into inaction, silence, sufferance.

When a state encourages police to act in this way the presumption tends to be increasingly arbitrary. We have a name for that – totalitarianism. But when it’s simply the case of officers on the beat being unaware of specific provisions under the law, and of particular policy directions laid down by the government, we should have a different name – wilful stupidity. Such is the state of Hong Kong’s street beat, wherein police officers have no idea they are trying to protect the illegal activities of employment agencies.

Now these are not just any employment agencies – that would make the situation far too obvious. They’re agencies that recruit foreign domestic helpers and bring them to Hong Kong. Anecdotal evidence, and quite a few documented cases, suggests that most of these agencies charge placement fees well over the legal limit, often involving large loans through allied companies in the Philippines, Nepal, India or Indonesia. That, in itself, is never investigated, but is not the point this time around.

What is particularly important, and what the police seem ignorant of, is that these agencies have a tendency to work as extensions of employer flippancy, often offering a sort of refund system under which an employer can chose up to three helpers through them if they’re not satisfied with the first. So far nothing illegal, but consider the women involved and the frequency of arbitrary dismissal and the word ‘unethical’ springs to mind. What is illegal is what happens to the women once they’re sacked.

Many employment agencies work like enforcers, collecting the dismissed helpers, making them stay at a particular boarding house for a fee, holding their passports and possibly – but not always – finding them a new employer. If no new employer can be found the women are driven to the airport, given their tickets for the next flight home and told to leave. Most of the helpers endure this through desperation and in the hope they might yet find a suitable employer. Many don’t.

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When Justice is (Almost) Done

4 August 2008

Or, How Did You Spend Your Sunday?

Sometimes the least words are the most welcome. So I’ll very quickly report that a crime investigation is now under way into the callous, wanton abuse of the domestic helper I mentioned a few days ago. The victim spent 10 hours giving a statement to the police yesterday, which should indicate that this is no trivial matter. Her case will proceed through at least one court and one tribunal here in Hong Kong, and I’ll write about the results when I can do so without legal ramifications. For now I should just mention again that domestic violence in all its forms, whether tinged with racism, presumptions of social superiority or marital dysfunction, is appalling.

Wake up people, the home is a refuge.

Puerile Journalism in Vicenta Flores Case

4 May 2008

How to Defame a Dead Woman in One Short Article

wooden shoes & newspaper inlay, by Kokjebalder, with Creative Commons licenceSome newspapers really aren’t fit to line your shoes. I’ve just posted a slightly different version of the following message on A Death in Hong Kong, the blog covering reactions to the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores in Hong Kong. Today the South China Morning Post undertook an exercise in childish smearing – reporting unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta that could only have been motivated by sensationalism. I haven’t named the reporter in case any legal complications arise, but it won’t be hard to figure out who wrote the piece if you check back through my earlier posts on the case.

Allegations Without Evidence

The South China Morning Post today, Sunday 4 May, published unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta Flores under the headline “Occult link to drowned maid”.

An article on page 3 (full online text for subscribers only) mentioned police asking Vicenta’s sister Irene about:

an “occult-like” paper written in Latin that was found among her dead sister’s belongings.

Members of the Justice for Vicky Flores support group, of which I’m a member, were aware of the paper more than a week ago, but had not commented on it because it’s still in police custody as part of an ongoing investigation.

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Death and Uncertainty

3 May 2008

More Questions in Hong Kong

Life uncertain, by Robby Garbett, with Creative Commons licenceThe old line tells us that there’s nothing as certain as death and taxes. But in Hong Kong that never holds true – tax arrangements change from year to year, and death doesn’t always bring closure. While preparing a post on perceptions of poverty today I realised that something important has been missing in my coverage of the still unexplained disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores. I mentioned in an earlier post that two other Filipino women died in Hong Kong on the day Vicenta disappeared, both apparent suicides. But for one of those women that presumption is no longer true, and another Filipina died in mysterious circumstances just over a week later.

Four unexplained deaths in 10 days and so few answers.

The Sun, one of the Filipino community newspapers here in Hong Kong, reported in its print edition earlier this week that the Coroner had asked police to further investigate the case of Carolina Dacquil, who fell to her death from a ninth floor window on 7 April. She had previously been thought to have committed suicide due to financial difficulties. Regardless of how many Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong are presumed to have financial difficulties, hasty conclusions in that regard should hardly be the hallmark of justice. So the Coroner’s request is encouraging, even though it casts significant doubt over the suitability of police procedure.

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Rallies Send Important Message

28 April 2008

Call for Respect, Promise of Scrutiny over Vicenta Flores’ Death

Following my last post on the importance of familiar strangers, which covered the same situation from a wider angle, I am cross-posting this coverage of yesterday’s rallies demanding justice for Vicenta Flores. The original is available on A Death in Hong Kong. Some of the details have been changed here to help readers who live overseas. If you hear of anything like this happening in your country, please publicise it however you can.

Two Rallies, One Message

Photo by Lulu Zuniga-Carmine, used with permission

Rallies held yesterday in Discovery Bay on Lantau island and Admiralty on nearby Hong Kong island combined to send a single message – that anything but a thorough investigation into the disappearance and death of Vicenta, Vicky, Flores will not be tolerated. The very good turnout in Discovery Bay showed the depth of community concern about the issue, and the Admiralty rally allowed us to join with those on Hong Kong side while presenting copies of our petition to the Philippine Consulate and Hong Kong police.

Discovery Bay, Lantau Island

The Discovery Bay rally filled the forecourt of the local International School, with speakers standing on a parked crane to address the crowd. In attendance were Vicenta’s sister Irene, her aunt and her godmother. Speakers included representatives from a Philippine highlander organisation, the Jesus is Lord church, a migrant group from Iloilo in the central Philippines and various migrant worker organisations. Vicenta’s aunt also spoke, and James Rice conducted the proceedings.

James, Discovery Bay resident and author of Take Your Rights Seriously, a legal rights handbook for migrant workers, spoke about the importance of justice, and how it encompassed concern and respect.

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Just One, or More?

21 April 2008

Other Unexplained Filipino Deaths in Hong Kong

Ace Investigations, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceNot every death is a tragedy alone. Sometimes the passing of one person draws attention to those of others, and the unanswered questions pile on top of each other. One of the most troubling aspects about Vicenta Flores’ death in Hong Kong recently is that she was not the only Filipino domestic helper to die in April. She was the third – another two women, reported as suicides, died on the day Vicky went missing.

Three deaths and so little fuss.

How does this happen with relative ease? Allow me to suggest a reason deeply embedded in the structure of Hong Kong life. The relationship between domestic helpers, mainly Filipinos and Indonesians, and their employers in Hong Kong rests on the sharp edge of suspicion. While this by no means covers all employers, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence from helpers pointing to constant surveillance, allegations of theft and general disregard for the conditions of labour contracts.

My sister-in-law is expected to work past midnight when she starts at five in the morning, to give one example that I can verify. A family friend was recently accused of stealing her employer’s jewellery and dismissed not long after without any investigation from the Immigration Department, to give another. Dismissal without reasonable cause, incidentally, is a breach of the labour contract – but it seems that any excuse will do.

...unanswered prayers. by underbunny, with Creative Commons licenceThis situation, added to the almost incidental ethnic segregation I mentioned a while back and obvious differences in social standing, make for constant malcontent. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Filipinos are furious about the three deaths. Writing on his blog yesterday, activist Aaron Ceradoy asked “When will these stop? How do we make them stop?” It’s a cry of desperation, a prayer into thin air.

Filipino migrant worker groups are now asking the same questions, and will be holding a rally on Sunday to express their indignation. The presumption is that the greater part of Hong Kong society just doesn’t care.

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