Hong Kong conviction for maid abuse spotlights global rights battle

A housewife was found guilty Tuesday of severely mistreating an Indonesian domestic worker, one of roughly 330,000 working in the territory. Millions of migrant maids are employed in households in Asia and the Middle East.

Kin Cheung/AP
Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, center, waves to her supporters as she arrives at a court in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.

Human rights advocates have widely praised a Hong Kong court’s conviction of a woman who abused her Indonesian maid in a case that has shed light on the plight of millions of foreign domestic workers across Asia and the Middle East.

On Tuesday, a judge found Law Wan-tung guilty of 18 charges of abuse against Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, The Associated Press reports. The charges included inflicting grievous bodily harm, criminal intimidation, and failure to pay wages or give time off work.

“To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves,” Ms. Erwiana told reporters after the verdict. “Because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

The brutality meted out to Erwiana has sparked calls for Hong Kong's government to revise its policies on migrant workers. Human rights activists argue that its current laws deter domestic helpers from reporting abuse for fear of being deported. Many appear cautiously optimistic that reform could be enacted. 

"The guilty verdict is a damning indictment of the government's failure to reform the system that traps women in a cycle of abuse and exploitation," Norma Kang Muico, a researcher for Amnesty International, told Reuters.

Erwiana told the court stories of Ms. Law denying her food, confiscating her passport, and beating her with a vacuum cleaner rod. District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock said that based on the testimony by the maid and other witnesses, "I am sure the defendant did assault, wound, and threaten [Erwiana] as charged."

Law was remanded into custody Tuesday and is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 27. A police investigator told Reuters that she could face up to seven years in prison.

Hong Kong has about 330,000 foreign domestic helpers, most of them from the Philippines and Indonesia. As The New York Times reports, Hong Kong law codifies their treatment as second-class citizens. They earn a small fraction of the minimum wage and are forced to live with their employers, often in tiny apartments. Human rights groups say they often suffer physical and emotional abuse, including sexual assault.

Anis Hidayah, director of the nonprofit group Migrant Care, told The Wall Street Journal she appreciated the Hong Kong court’s decision, but that she was waiting to see Law’s sentence. She said the battle to protect maids is far from over, and pointed to stories of abuse in countries from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia.

In 2011, Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Saudi Arabia after a domestic worker was publicly beheaded after she attacked her employer, who refused to allow her home leave. 

While reforming Hong Kong’s policies remains a crucial step, Mrs. Hidayah added that the Indonesian “government should side with their migrant workers and follow up abuse cases [that] happen to our workers overseas.” Indonesian President Joko Widodo has promised to better protect citizens abroad, including migrant workers.

Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 52 million domestic workers worldwide. Most are women and girls, and many are migrants. The International Labor Organization passed a treaty to better protect them in 2011. But with only 14 countries having ratified the treaty, abuses remain widespread.

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