Many of us have been horrified in the past week by the pictures of Erwiana Sulistayaniangsih, a domestic helper from Indonesia who was allegedly severely abused for eight months by her employers. It is believed that they beat her with sticks and hangers and poured hot water on her hands and feet. When she could no longer walk because of her injuries, they gave her $100 and fired her, discarding her like a used soda can. Her case has drawn international attention to the plight of abused helpers in Hong Kong.
While abuses as severe as what happened to Ms. Sulistayaniangsih are thankfully rare, helper abuse in general is endemic in Hong Kong. According to the 2012 Mission for Migrant Workers survey of Hong Kong Helpers, 58% have been verbally abused, 18% have been physically abused and 6% have been sexually abused.
I think much of the problem in the less extreme cases stems from a lack of awareness and education on the part of both helpers and employers.
Many helpers are completely unaware of their legal rights. During the hiring process, they simply are not told by their agencies what legal rights they have in Hong Kong. It is appalling to think how many go into their employment without being the least aware of the obligations of their employers. This makes them easy targets.
The worse education problem is on the part of employers, many of whom have little or no experience and education in proper management. These employers frequently take their insecurities out on their helpers. If such an employer is frustrated with a helper’s performance, he or she will blame the helper, but often the problem occurs because the employer has not provided proper guidance, or been too harsh and unforgiving, or simply because he or she has not understood the implications of the fact that the helper comes from a different culture with different traditions and social mores.
Steep fines and punishments are already in places for abusers of helpers, but lack of reporting and enforcement make these somewhat toothless. What is needed is a long term effort that looks beyond punishment to educate the employers. Just like when corruption was weeded out in HK, a process that took decades, the systemic abuse of helpers can only be stopped with long term education at all levels of society. I’m certainly not imagining that educating employers would end abuse quickly or completely, but I do think that a concerted effort could, over time, change attitudes in such a way that treating helpers with respect in all aspects of their employment became the default stance.
A simple government pamphlet with some tips on how to set up a work routine and why a happy employee is important for a harmonious household would be a good start. Mandatory education classes for new employers and those who employ several helpers in quick succession would be even better. While being a really stellar manager is an art, with a few hours of education most people can at least be made to understand the basics. School children should also be taught that the woman who washes their clothes, cleans the house and cooks their meals is worthy of respect and fair treatment, and why these are important things.
If the average employers start to learn about managing helpers, and if they learn to listen to their helpers, we will have come a long way towards making Hong Kong a better place to live for the 300,000 helpers who work here.
I want to end by highlighting one of several organizations that works for helper rights and helps them in difficult situations. Helpers for Domestic Helpers provides free legal advice, counseling and guidance. On their website, they have an “Understand Your Rights” section where helpers (and employers) can get information.
Read more from Andreas by picking up a copy of his indispensible guide, Hiring and Managing Domestic Help right here!