Sitting at home on a cold January day in 2014 recovering from a shoulder operation, I was shocked to watch the unraveling of a cynical story of physical and emotional abuse, dishonesty, illegality, bureaucratic intransigence and cold-hearted contempt. This was a story that ultimately led a young Indonesian migrant domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, to a near-death encounter with her Hong Kong employer.
While enduring severe and repeated beatings, nonpayment of wages, sleep and food deprivation, emotional abuse and complete social isolation, Erwiana could find nowhere to turn for help. As documented in great detail during the trial of her former employer, Law Wan-tung, each time Erwiana desperately sought help she was turned away. Neither her employment agency nor the police, or even the building management where she lived with her employer, a woman, would help. In fact, it was later revealed that Erwiana’s employment agency, Chan’s Asia, unlawfully detained her passport, meaning that even if she had wanted to leave Hong Kong on her own, she was unable to do so. Yet, this was Hong Kong, where migrant domestic workers come precisely because it is believed to provide good working conditions, especially compared to destinations in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. What happened to Erwiana was the sort of thing that happens with shocking regularity in other migrant worker destinations, but it was not supposed to happen here.
Erwiana’s story raised many questions. Was hers an isolated case, or was abuse of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong more common but simply not reported? What was the relationship between the nations that export domestic workers and Hong Kong? How was it that Hong Kong’s well-regarded legal system, criticized even by the presiding magistrate during proceedings in the prosecution of Law Wan-tung, could be implicated in the wider problem of abuse of migrant domestic workers? Embarking on an 18-month search for answers across Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines, it soon became clear that Erwiana’s story was exceptional only in its excess, and symbolized the powerlessness and vulnerability experienced by much of the migrant domestic worker community in Hong Kong.
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