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Plight of the domestic workers

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#1 [Permalink] Posted on 19th January 2014 17:05

Hong Kong's domestic worker abuse

Sragen, Indonesia - Erwiana Sulistyaningsih cut an unusual figure as she limped through Hong Kong airport in six T-shirts and two pairs of trousers on January 10. The extra layers did little to veil the injuries to her hands and feet and heavy facial swelling.

Erwiana said she was dropped off that evening by her former employer, Law Wantung. The 23-year-old maid said her boss bought her a flight to her home country, Indonesia, gave her 100,000 rupiah ($8.40), and told her never to talk to anyone about what had happened to her in Hong Kong.

"She told me that she knew a lot of people in Indonesia and if I said anything she would have my parents killed," Erwiana told Al Jazeera, surrounded by her family in a hospital bed in Sragen, Central Java.

Doctors at Amel Sehat Islamic Hospital say she is suffering from swelling of the brain from repeated blows to the head. She also has several broken teeth, a broken nose and her hands and feet are brown and swollen with cellulitis - an infection of the skin that resulted from her long-untreated wounds.

Erwiana said her wounds are the product of seven months of abuse that she suffered while "working" as a domestic helper. The 100,000 rupiah she was given at the airport is the only remuneration she received, she said.

Hong Kong police have announced that four crime-squad officers will be dispatched to Indonesia on Monday to interview Erwiana.

Dangerous assignment

About 330,000 foreigners work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong. London-based rights group Amnesty International said thousands from Indonesia are being tricked into working in Hong Kong by brokers and agencies with callous disregard for their clients' welfare. Many are forced to pay extortionate recruitment fees and are abused by their employers.

Erwiana was recruited in Indonesia by PT Graha Ayukarsa, with whom she said she agreed to have HK$2,543 ($328) deducted from her HK$3,920 ($505) monthly wage, until a HK$18,000 ($2,320) recruitment fee was paid off. Hong Kong's minimum wage is HK$4,010 ($517) and it is illegal to impose recruitment fees of more than 10 percent on the first month's wage.

Erwiana was then placed by Chan's Asia Recruitment Centre, PT Graha Ayukarsa's Hong Kong partner, and arrived to work on her boss's 36th-floor apartment in Tseung Kwan O, an upmarket Hong Kong suburb, in May 2013.

"When I first came to Hong Kong I thought it was a kind of luxurious place, an amazing place. But it was not the reality for me," she said.

According to Erwiana she received no days off, was confined to the apartment, and was given a small portion of rice as her daily meal.

After receiving no payment for her first month's work, Erwiana escaped and said that she called her local agent from a public telephone on the ground floor of the apartment complex.

But when the agent arrived to meet her, Erwiana said, she was told her employer would provide payment, and was brought back to the apartment.

It was then, she said, that the violence began.

According to Erwiana the beatings were sporadic at first, but slowly became a daily ordeal. Sometimes she was told it was because she'd failed to hear an instruction, sometimes apparently for no reason at all.

"She would beat me with a lot of different implements, most usually with the handle of my mop. She would hit me all over, but mostly on my head," she said. "I had to work for 21 hours a day. I didn't have my own room so whenever I could sleep I would sleep on the floor.

"If [one of her two teenage] children found me sleeping when I wasn't supposed to be they'd tell her and she'd beat me again."

Carpet stains

In the final weeks of her ordeal, Erwiana said blood and puss ran from her wounds prompting her employer to complain that it was staining the carpet. She said her boss wrapped her wounds in bandages and plastic bags, but it still seeped out. Erwiana said a few days later she was driven to the airport.

Halfway through an interview with Al Jazeera, Erwiana became dizzy from the strain of recounting her story. Since returning to Indonesia she has suffered severe headaches from any prolonged period of concentration.

Erwiana's friend, Riyanti, sat at the foot of her bed. The pair met as Erwiana struggled through Hong Kong airport. Riyanti, who was also returning from a placement as a domestic helper, realised Erwiana was seriously injured and encouraged her to go to the police. Scared her employer would cancel her ticket home, Erwiana continued on without filing a report. Riyanti helped her home and has remained with her since.

"I was lucky - my employer paid me as agreed and was not violent. But this is not the first time I've heard of other cases like Erwiana's," she said. "I am staying to get justice for her."

Amnesty said there are thousands such as Erwiana who suffer conditions tantamount to modern-day slavery working in Hong Kong.

Since her case has made international headlines, another women identified as Bunga has come forward claiming also to have worked for Erwiana's employer. Bunga reported similar abuse, and in one incident said she begged for her life after her boss threatened to throw her off the balcony.


"When you see cases like [Erwiana's] - of [alleged] extreme physical abuse - it's tempting to see them as isolated," Robert Godden, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific coordinator, told Al Jazeera.

"But actually, when you look into the specifics...many of the factors leading to the abuse can be applied to thousands of migrant domestic workers: underpayment, the employer didn't pay the minimum wage; restrictions on movement; you can see that she was heavily indebted by the illegal recruitment fees charged by the agency; and you can see that she didn't know how to access justice."

Amnesty said the vulnerability of migrant workers is compounded by discriminating labour laws and reluctant law enforcement.

"[Victims] tend to not to be taken seriously and are discouraged from filing complaints...That seems to have been the case [for Erwiana] when it wasn't until a lot of public pressure through the media came to bear on the police, that they actually started actively investigating.

"We have anecdotal reports from those who have tried to file reports before that they have been discouraged by the police."

Godden said racial discrimination against migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong's broader population is borne out in government policy and regulation. "Much of this is things you pick up within society, but we would focus on the regulation system itself, and show how it perpetuates or causes some of the abuse to take place."

According to an Amnesty report published in November, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's (SAR) "two-week rule" states that migrant domestic workers must find new employment within two weeks of their contract ending or being terminated, or they have to leave Hong Kong.

This pressures workers to remain with abusive employers; if they leave their job, they are likely to have to leave the country, which for many would make it impossible to repay the recruitment fees and support their families in Indonesia.

The two-week rule also obstructs justice. If a migrant domestic worker leaves an abusive employer and is not re-employed within two weeks, she must leave Hong Kong, making it difficult and costly for her to file a case.

No escape

Migrant domestic workers are also legally required to live with their employer, leaving no means of escape should the employer become abusive.

According to Amnesty, many agencies charge illegal recruitment fees but the government is doing nothing to police the problem.

"It's a failing by the Hong Kong authorities to say 'you need to complain if you have some grievance'. Actually, they need to proactively police and regulate the agencies," Godden said.

Responding to the criticism, Hong Kong SAR Secretary for Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung released a statement saying the government would step up regulation and "enforcement action", in particular the inspection of employment agencies.

"In this particular [Erwiana's] case, the Labour Department has been in close touch with the agency concerned and we will certainly impress upon all agencies in Hong Kong that they should protect the interest of helpers," he said.

Nyoman Darmanta, deputy director of international cooperation at Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.

Bapak Hima, the local agent of PT Graha Ayukarsa, said he did not want to be interviewed. Bapak A Siong, owner of PT Graha Ayukarsa, didn't respond to phone calls.

Chan's Asia Recruitment Centre failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. Erwiana's employer could not be contacted by publication time.

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#2 [Permalink] Posted on 21st January 2014 17:51
Ethiopian Migrants Victimized in Saudi Arabia: Trail of Abuse and Negligence

In the last 10 days persecution of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia has escalated. Men and women are forced from their homes by mobs of civilians and dragged through the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah. Distressing videos of Ethiopian men being mercilessly beaten, kicked and punched have circulated the Internet and triggered worldwide protests by members of the Ethiopian diaspora as well as outraged civilians in Ethiopia. Women report being raped, many repeatedly, by vigilantes and Saudi police. Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), has received reports of fifty deaths and states that thousands living with or without visas have been detained awaiting repatriation. Imprisoned, many relay experiences of torture and violent beatings.

Earlier this year the Saudi authorities announced plans to purge the kingdom of illegal migrants. In July, King Abdullah extended the deadline for them to "regularize their residency and employment status [from 3 rd July] to November 4th. Obtain the correct visa documentation, or risk arrest, imprisonment and/or repatriation. On 6th November, Inter Press Service (IPS) reports, Saudi police, "rounded up more than 4,000 illegal foreign workers at the start of a nationwide crackdown," undertaken in an attempt (the authorities say), to reduce the 12% unemployment rate "creating more jobs for locals".

Leading up to the "crackdown" many visa-less migrants left the country: nearly a million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis are estimated to have left the country in the past three months. More than 30,000 Yemenis have reportedly crossed to their home country in the past two weeks," and around 23,000 Ethiopian men and women have "surrendered to Saudi authorities" [BBC].

The police and civilian vigilante gangs are victimizing Ethiopian migrants, residing with and without visas; the "crackdown" has provided the police and certain sectors of the civilian population with an excuse to attack Ethiopians. Press TV reports that "Saudi police killed three Ethiopian migrant workers in the impoverished neighborhood of Manfuhah in the capital, Riyadh, where thousands of African workers, mostly Ethiopians, were waiting for buses to take them to deportation centers." Hundreds have been arrested and report being tortured: "we are kept in a concentration camp, we do not get enough food and drink, when we defend our sisters from being raped, they beat and kill us," a migrant named Kedir, told ESAT TV. Women seeking refuge within the Ethiopian consulate tell of being abducted from the building by Saudi men and raped. ESAT, reports that several thousand migrants have been transported by trucks to unknown destinations outside the cities.

Whilst the repatriation of illegal migrants is lawful, the Saudi authorities do not have the right to act violently; beating, torturing and raping vulnerable, frightened people: people, who wish simply to work in order to support their families. The abuse that has overflowed from the homes where domestic workers are employed onto the streets of the capital reflects the wide-ranging abuse suffered by migrant workers of all nationalities in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf States.

Trail of Abuse

This explosion of state sponsored violence against Ethiopians highlights the plight of thousands of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. They tell of physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of employers, agents and family members. The draconian Kafala sponsorship system, (which grants ownership of migrants to their sponsor), together with poor or non-existent labour laws, endemic racism and gender prejudice, creates an environment in which extreme mistreatment has become commonplace in the oil-rich kingdom.

There are over nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, that's 30% of the population. They come from poor backgrounds in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia and make up "more than half the work force. The country would grind to an embarrassing stand still without their daily toil. "Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation [including withholding of wages, excessive working hours and confinement], sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions", Human Rights Watch (HRW) states.

Ethiopian Governments Negligence

Whilst thousands of its nationals are detained, beaten, killed and raped, the Ethiopian government hangs its negligent head in silence in Addis Ababa, does not act to protect or swiftly repatriate their nationals, and criminalises those protesting in Addis Ababa against the Saudi actions.

Although freedom to protest is enshrined within the Ethiopian constitution (a liberal minded, largely ignored document written by the incumbent party), dissent and public demonstrations, if not publicly outlawed, are actively discouraged by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime. In response to the brutal treatment meted out by the Saudi police and gangs of vigilantes in Riyadh and Jeddah, outraged civilians in Addis Ababa staged a protest outside the Saudi Embassy, only to be confronted by their own police force, wielding batons and beating demonstrators. Al Jazeera reports that police "arrested dozens of people outside the Saudi embassy [in Addis Ababa] in a crackdown on demonstrators protesting against targeted attacks on Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia." A senior member of The Blue Party, Getaneh Balcha was one of over 100 people arrested for peacefully protesting.

The government's justification, rolled out to defend yet another suppressive response to a democratic display, was to assert that the protest "was an illegal demonstration, they had not got a permit from the appropriate office": petty bureaucratic nonsense, hiding the undemocratic truth that the government does not want public protests of any kind on the streets of its cities: effectively, freedom of assembly is banned in Ethiopia. The protestors, he said, "were fomenting anti-Arab sentiments here among Ethiopians." Given the brutal treatment of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, anger and anti-Saudi sentiment (not anti Arab) is, one would imagine understandable, and should be shared by the Ethiopian government.

The people of Ethiopia are living under a duplicitous highly repressive regime. The EPRDF consistently demonstrates it's total indifference to the needs and human rights of the people. Freedom of expression, political dissent and public assembly is denied by a regime that is committing a plethora f human rights violations in various parts of the country, atrocities constituting in certain regions crimes against humanity. In fact, according to Genocide Watch, the Ethiopian government is committing genocide in the Somali region, as well as on the "Anuak, Oromo and Omo" ethnic groups (or tribes).Freedom of expression, political dissent and public assembly is denied by a regime that is committing a plethora f human rights violations in various parts of the country, atrocities constituting in certain regions crimes against humanity.

The recent appalling events in Saudi Arabia have brought thousands of impassioned Ethiopians living inside the country and overseas onto the streets. This powerful worldwide action presents a tremendous opportunity for the people to unite, to demand their rights through peaceful demonstrations and to call with one voice for change within their beloved country. The time to act is now, as a wise man has rightly said, "nothing happens by itself, man must act and implement his will".

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