Hong Kong law traps domestic helpers — the small percentage that lives with nasty employers — in circumstances “worse than prison”. The contracts helpers must sign enable the Government to prosecute them for criminal offences if they don’t abide by every clause. Consequently, Hong Kong jails have in percentage terms relative to our population more female prisoners than anywhere else in the world. In the worst cases these laws lead to “a modern form of slavery”.
These are quotes from one of the most eminent campaigners in the field: Melville Boase, who co-founded the Mission for Migrant Workers in 1981. An outreach arm of St John’s Cathedral, the Mission is about as Establishment as you can get. But the Government does not listen. Melville is a solicitor who founded the law firm Boase Cohen & Collins. For 37 years he has worked on migrant worker issues and remains honorary treasurer and legal counsel to the Mission.
Few other countries treat labour offences as criminal matters, Melville said in an interview. The International Labour Organisation of the UN has repeatedly criticised Hong Kong for its relative lack of human rights laws. The United States ranks Hong Kong along with the likes of Afghanistan because we have no law against slavery. (Legislative Councillor Dennis Kwok is trying to change this.) The Government may be embarrassed so many domestic helpers are in jail, because it refuses to reveal the statistics.
BUZZ asked Melville to prioritise: what is the worst issue from a helper’s point of view? He said the two-week rule. If a girl’s employment has finished she must leave Hong Kong within two weeks or she commits a criminal offence. Often she can’t leave. She is trapped. “Knowing the helper is in a fix, a bad employer will take advantage of her,” Melville said. He criticised the Government for “hypocrisy — it exploits them in every way.”. The Government makes millions from helpers. If a woman wants a visa extension while seeking new employment or to pursue claims related to her former job she must pay a $190 fee. That just allows her to stay until the next stage of the process. As it moves forward she has to pay $190 at each stage. “Some girls pay eight or nine times.”
Here Melville outlines the trap girls find themselves in: “The Government orders the helper to leave (after her job has finished) but does not provide her with the means to do so. To get fare home, she has to apply for a visitor’s visa to pursue her claim through the Labour Department, then Labour Tribunal, then District Court and then Bailiff’s Office to enforce it. Unless the helper gets legal aid, the Bailiff’s Office will require a $2000 deposit — double the usual fare home. That can take months, sometimes more than a year. All the time the helper needs to pay for visa extensions and would commit a criminal offence if she took a job to support herself and family at home and pay the bills. So she has to live on charity. The same delays apply to claims for wages and other matters arising from her previous employment.”
Melville explained what often happens when a girl arrives at Chek Lap Kok for the first time. She is met by an agency staffer who takes her ID. Downtown it transpires that near the agency’s office, there is a money lender. This outfit lends a considerable sum, which the helper never sees. The agency has pocketed it (agency fees are limited by law to 10% of the first month’s salary) perhaps sharing with the money lender. Paperwork is created requiring the girl to pay the loan back, sometimes as much as $3000 a month. “They are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They don’t realise the trap until it is too
Melville listed some of the clauses in the contracts helpers must sign:
— The woman (they are almost all women) stipulates that she will not
take less pay.
— She signs up to being allowed to work only in her employer’s residence.
— She undertakes to do only work stated in the contract.
If she breaks any of those clauses she commits a criminal offence. The Government prosecutes her. A magistrate’s court sends her to prison. “Almost everywhere else in the world, the law would be enforced against the employer. But in Hong Kong it is enforced against the helper.” Melville said, “The Labour Department is ineffective from a helper’s point of view, but from any employer’s or agency’s point of view it is very good.” If a helper takes her case to the Labour Tribunal, the law forbids her to have any legal representation, so too at the Small Claims Tribunal and the courts.
The roughly 400,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong make the economy. “It is cheap labour.” Melville does not accuse the Government of racialism, but of economic exploitation.
He said the Mission for Migrant Workers frequently hears cases of serious physical and sexual abuse. Women also often complain of psychological pressure — long working hours, intolerable living conditions such as sleeping in the kitchen or toilet, bad food and verbal abuse. Suicide is one tragic way out.
The Mission for Migrant Workers provides services for any Asian migrants who need them. It has a shelter, Bethune House, where migrants in difficulty can stay temporarily. Mission services include counselling, paralegal help with government departments, prison visits, educational support and welfare programmes. It works for the empowerment of women and the prevention of violence. The Mission has
a full-time staff led by Cynthia Abdon – Tellez,and the Dean of St John’s Cathedral sits on its board, as does Melville.