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Why doesn't Hong Kong do more to protect foreign workers from violence?

Photo by Alex Hofford

My experience of migration is limited, but when I decided to come to Hong Kong to study I was confident that wherever I went the law would protect me regardless of my country of origin against fundamental crimes such as unlawful physical violence and abuse. However not everyone can migrate with such ease of mind, and the 370,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are a perfect example of this.

Foreign domestic workers are disproportionately the victims of the violent crimes in Hong Kong which are covered by the Offences against the Person Ordinance such as assault, common assault, actual bodily harm, wounding and murder (1). What is so shocking about these cases is that they take place in a domestic setting, which means the abuse can take place over, and over, and over again. It would be easy to consider this as domestic abuse, however because the workers are not members of the homeowner's family it is not. Extreme examples of violence against foreign workers such as Rurik Jutting’s murder of two Indonesian women or the case of the routine torture which Erwiana Sulistyaningsih (2) suffered stand out due to their media coverage, but it is the less extreme and more common/repeated illegal violence against workers which points out huge flaws in Hong Kong’s legal system. 18% of workers complained about being the subject of violence in a 2012 survey, there are countless examples of these kinds of violence but a particularly recent one comes from just last month when a worker took her employer to court after the employer poured hot water on her.

The main overarching flaw is that workers find it exceptionally difficult to start legal proceedings against offenders. Making complaints in police stations is ineffective due to a language barrier in most locations and going to the Immigration Department or the Employment Agencies Administration is not usually practical given they don’t even open on Sundays, which is typically the domestic workers’ only day off a week. Even if they start legal proceedings within the Limitation Act (3) they will often be caught out by the discriminatory 2 week rule which forces them to pay for a new visa to stay in Hong Kong or they may simply not have the support of legal advocates given the lack of legal aid. Finally, in the rare scenario a worker gets their case all the way to court, unless they can provide physical evidence of violence their testimony is often thrown out as not being credible. The 2003 ‘live in’ rule is also a problem which increases the likelihood of the violence occurring in the first place. By forcing workers to live with their employers we are putting them in almost constant contact with their employers - a situation which is bound to encourage abuse and test relationships.

Society fundamentally treats foreign domestic workers differently, after all how many social groups are given the equivalent of the 2 week rule and have so many barriers to permanent residency placed in their way? How many social groups go to court to obtain justice for crimes against them and get faced with questions like “why didn’t you just leave earlier if you were being abused”. If the people asking these questions also relied on their perpetrator for their family’s income then perhaps they would know the answer.

The conclusion? Changes are undoubtedly needed to keep Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers safe, particularly as the size of their population in the city grows. How? Stop the 2 week rule; open government departments on Sundays; provide the police with training to handle worker complaints; provide better codes of practise to employment agencies and employers; and change the exception to the live-in rule so that more than 30 employees in the jurisdiction can use it if they so wish. These are not complex suggestions and it begs the question: why doesn’t Hong Kong protect its domestic workers against violence?

(1) Offences against the Person Ordinance, Cap 212, (1865).

(2) HKSAR v Law Wan Tung [2015] HKEC 242.

(3) Limitation Ordinance, Cap 347, (1965).

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