Travel ban on Indonesian maids would worsen risk of abuse - labour leader

by Alisa Tang | @alisatang | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 February 2015 13:59 GMT

A supporter holds a sign with a drawing of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, during a protest calling for better protection of migrant workers, outside the Kwun Tong Magistrates' Court in Hong Kong April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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Hong Kong recruitment agencies charge exorbitant fees, government urged to enforce law, protect maids

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A ban on Indonesian women going overseas for domestic work would be difficult to enforce and would push them towards using "irregular" channels to go abroad, putting them at greater risk of abuse, a labour leader said.

The Indonesian government threatened to put a moratorium on domestic workers going abroad after a Hong Kong woman was found guilty last week of severely abusing her Indonesian employee.

The case triggered outrage over the mistreatment of domestic workers and the abuse that many women face while working abroad.

But a travel ban would only make matters worse, according to Elizabeth Tang of the Hong Kong-based International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

"The laws are so badly enforced that many domestic workers will just go through irregular channels to go abroad and that will put them in greater danger," said Tang, general secretary of the IDWF, which has 300,000 members around the world.

Millions of Indonesian women work abroad, cooking, cleaning and taking care of children for families across Asia and the Middle East.

For many of them, it is the only way they can pay for their children's education and family members' medical care, she said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.

The legal minimum monthly wage for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is about US$520, while the average monthly wage for live-in domestic workers in Indonesia is about $50 to $60 a month.

Labour leaders say the best solution would be for the Hong Kong government to enforce existing laws, in particular one that caps recruitment fees.

By law, an employment agency can charge a maximum fee of 10 percent of the first month's wage, or $50, but only about 15 to 20 percent of agencies observe this law, Tang said.

The vast majority charge "whatever they want", and 60 to 70 percent of domestic workers pay an average of six months' wages - and up to 10 months - as a recruitment fee.

Many women resort to high interest loans to raise this sum, putting their homes or land down as collateral, and need the work to pay off the debt.

"So they have to endure any bad behaviour of the employers, even illegal behaviour," Tang said.

It is illegal to deny domestic workers food, holidays and the freedom to leave the family home.

"But they will take it because they are afraid to lose their jobs. If they lose their jobs, then they have no way to pay back their debts," Tang said, adding that some agencies tell the women not to complain about abuses they suffer.

Shiella Estrada, vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union, said that recruitment agencies in the Philippines have had licences revoked and been fined for violations, but those in Hong Kong have flaunted the law with impunity.

Now, Estrada said, the agencies in the Philippines have passed on their agency fee to their counterparts in Hong Kong, so domestic workers still pay the same $1,300 to $2,300 fees.

Tang of IDWF believes the Hong Kong government has failed to act because migrant domestic workers have no political power.

"The goverment ... say 'our core value is the rule of law', but obviously that doesn't include migrant domestic workers," she said.

One Hong Kong company that has tried to address the abuses and help domestic workers avoid paying fees is HelperChoice.com.

Started by two French expatriates, the site allows domestic workers to sign up for free and create their profiles, and employers to pay about $40 to sign up for a month's access to profiles.

The employer and employee can make contact, and if they are a good fit, the employer takes the "helper" to an agency to complete the paperwork needed, and the employer pays the agency fees.

"We see ourselves as an alternative to agencies," said Laurence Fauchon, who founded the company in 2012. "We believe that we are helping to protect the helpers."

Her company - which has placed about 2,000 domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Africa with employers in Asia and the Middle East - encourages domestic workers to stay active on social media and Facebook.

"Employers think they will not go to police or go to court if they are mistreated, so for us, social media is a good way for the helpers to talk to each other, share their experiences, as protection against bad treatment," she said.

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, Editing by Tim Pearce)

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