Shiella Estrada: Organizing against the abuse in Hong Kong


“I started getting involved as an organizer when my second employer asked me to live out because she wanted privacy at night. Then it was legal to live out of your employer’s house. I saw workers sometimes crying in the park when I went back home. They came to our boarding house seeking help. Sometimes they terminated late at night or early morning and needed a place to go. Sometimes a worker is asked to leave suddenly. An employer will say, ‘Just get out of my house, pack your things and you go.’ Sometimes you see them in the park because there is no place to go.”

Typical abuses

“I’d guess about a third of the domestic workers have an exploitive situation. Most are employed without having anywhere to sleep. We even have one worker who had to sleep on top of the drying machine. But the employer only wanted to dry clothes at night time. When it was spinning, she’s moving. The hanging clothes dripped water on her. It’s a joke but it’s sad.

“The typical abuses, in order: not enough food, long hours of work and the sleeping arrangement. In Hong Kong, a lot of the employers live in a small flat, but they can afford to employ a domestic worker. I know one woman sleeps in the kitchen. One sleeps in the living room but the employers are watching TV until 1 a.m. She can’t sleep on the floor until they go to bed. One worker slept in the window.

“For dinner, workers typically have half a cup or bowl of rice at night time. In the morning they usually don’t get any food. Lunch is mostly instant noodles. Food is often leftovers. There might be a little bit of meat or vegetable. The employer will pick out some food from their dishes. One worker I met last Friday said her employers just give her soup for the rice—if she eats at all. Her contract says she is to work for one employer but she has four employers.

“The Labour Department says it wants migrant workers to live in because they want them to serve employers around the clock, 24 hours. They don’t want migrant workers to live out because we will steal jobs of local domestic workers because once we live out they say we will go find part-time jobs—in addition to the contracted work. We say how can we do part-time jobs when we work long hours? Most dinner time is 9 p.m. and we finish up at 11 p.m. And then early in the morning we start again, at 5.30 or 6 a.m. because most kids go to school early.

“They think if you work here as a domestic worker you have no right to say no. Sometimes they ask you to work at the parents’ house or a sister’s house. This is illegal for us and they never give extra money to compensate. Sometimes they ask you to clean up offices or shops. The Immigration Department will deport you if you are caught working like that. The problem is no one in immigration checks on this.

“More women employers are now working, they have more burdens. Many are separated from the husband and they take it out on the domestic worker. Now we see an increase in physical abuses.”

The upside of the labour law

“What is working in the labour law is maternity protection. If you get pregnant, the migrant domestic worker is entitled to 2.5 month’s leave with two thirds month’s salary. Yes, it’s enforced because you can file a complaint in the Labour Department and the employer will have to pay. We fought for this since 1996.

“We have been campaigning so long about conditions and the two weeks’ stay rule. Once terminated, you have only two weeks to stay and then you must go back home if you cannot find another job. We are fighting termination of contract. Even employers who make so many terminations they are never penalized. But if a domestic worker is terminated three times, they won’t issue a visa any more, even if you find another employer. We are also trying to change the mandatory live in. But there is little chance to change.

“Not all employers give the one day off. Some give once in a month or twice in a month or half a day. The contract gives you 24 hours but most employers ask you to come back at 7 or 8 p.m. and start working. For some, you have to cook their breakfast and clean up and then they ask you to come back and cook dinner—without compensation. You’re lucky if your employer gives you a 9 p.m. curfew hour. I don’t know any whose employers allow them to go out all night. Even if you don’t have to cook, you have to wash their dishes and bathe the kids if they have kids.”

How being organized helps

“We do some legal services. We do some sheltering for workers who have been terminated. We help with legal problems, like claim of salaries. We are now concentrating on refunding the agency fees. Philippines has a policy of zero placement fee. In the reality, the workers are paying a large amount of money, like 100,000 pesos or 150,000 pesos. The cheapest is 80,000 pesos. Now they change the fee into a ‘loan’. They force you to take a loan but you never see the money. Every month you pay back HK$3,000. If you say no, they won’t process the papers. If you come here with a visa, they will pressure the employer for the fee.

“But there is more abuse with the Indonesian workers. We Filipinos we fight more with the employers. If we feel we can’t take it anymore, we leave. The Indonesians just take it. They’re not used to speaking up. Some of them are very young. Philippine law says you can’t go out until your 23 years old. But the Indonesians are 18, 17, even 16. And 90 per cent of Filipinos graduated university; we’re nurses, teachers, dentists doing domestic work. The salary of a domestic worker in Hong Kong is higher than the salary of a teacher in the Philippines—it’s double.

“The Indonesians are becoming more organized. We really want to help the workers. But some say they will wait until the contract runs out. Sometimes we say you’re a willing victim. But it’s hard to find a job if you’ve been terminated. So they sacrifice for two years.”