Abuse, Low Wages and Little Freedom: The Life of Hong Kong's Foreign Maids

A recent court case concerning the physical assault and torture of Indonesian maid Kartika Puspitasari by her employers has again unveiled the vulnerable condition of foreign maids in Hong Kong.

Currently there are more than 310,000 foreign maids working in Hong Kong, and the number constitutes 3 percent of the international city's population. But Hong Kong is rather notorious for its policy on foreign domestic workers (FDWs). In addition to the immigration ordinance that excludes foreign domestic workers from applying for permanent residency in Hong Kong after working in the city for seven years, the “fortnight regulation” that requires FDWs to find a new employer within two weeks upon termination of contract makes it very difficult for the maids to change and choose their employers.

Furthermore, they are not protected by the city's minimum wage policy, and they are exploited by middle-agencies and forced to work long hours and live with their employers in extremely poor living conditions.

Indonesian Maids Rally in Support of Abused Domestic Helper on September 15, 2013. Photo from Hong Wrong.

Indonesian Maids Rally in Support of Abused Domestic Helper on September 15, 2013. Photo by Tom Grundy.

When the story of Kartika was first revealed, many found it hard to believe because the labour market is supposed to be “free”. Obviously such “common sense” is not applied to foreign maids who are less protected by law when compared to local citizens. Take a look at Hong Wrong blogger Tom Grundy's brief description of the case:

Between October 2010 and October 2012, Kartika Puspitasari was allegedly beaten with a chain and a shoe, scalded with a hot iron, tied to a chair, had her hair chopped off and was forced to wear a diaper and children’s clothes by her employers.

The employers were eventually sentenced to three years and three months and five and a half years respectively on September 18, 2013. The judge's decision was based on the hard evidence, in particular the 45 wounds found on the maid's body, but believed some of the testimonies were exaggerated and could not figure out why Kartika did not go to the police.

Rosa from left21 who followed the court case in detail explained why the story sounded so “incredible” to local people by examining the unequal power relation between employers and maids in Hong Kong:


The employer and employee are unequal within the legal process. The judge from the Labour Tribunal openly said that “If you are to stay, you have to pay” – according to the law, the maids cannot work during the legal process and the government will not pay for their living expenses and visa fees. They have to pay (or seek help from charity organizations) in order to pay for the legal fees and seek justice. Confronted with the language barrier and the pressure of being unemployed, the legal system “if you are to stay, you have to pay” silences maids, and they choose to suffer in silence rather that confronting their employers in court.


Two of the allegations were ruled as invalid because the judge found the testimony unreliable. He believed that it was impossible for the employers to tie the maid up for five days while they were traveling. He also found it impossible that the employer forced the maid to dress in undersized clothes or a transparent plastic bag and clean in front of the male employer. He could not believe that the maid did not have a chance to escape and believed that she chose not to do so.

Curiously enough, the judge believed in the evidence that proved the employers’ actions were cruel, inhumane and insulting, but still crafted his judgement according to the “common sense” of “normal” employment relations, and thus denied the victim's testimony. The judge focused on the “hard evidence” while ignoring the invisible power created by threats, psychological stress, torture, hunger, seclusion, etc. Such invisible forces makes it difficult for the maid to runaway.

However, instead of changing the extremely unequal power relation between the employers and the maid, the Hong Kong immigration department is making it harder for the maid to change their employers, as reported by Tom Grundy in early September:

In an attempt to combat the ‘non-problem’ of ‘job shopping’, the government has tightened rules to further entrap the city’s long-suffering domestic helpers. Last week, the Immigration Department responded to supposed ‘public concern‘,announcing that it will now make it harder for domestic workers to quit their contracts.

Sheila explained how unfair the immigration department's two-week rule is to the FDWs is in Stories Beyond Borders, a crowd source advocacy video project:

Many employers in Hong Kong do not understand that FDWs should have their own leisure time and private space. In an interview with citizen media platform inmediahk.net, Indonesian maid Ada talked about the difficulties confronted by her friends when they try to enroll in part-time study in Hong Kong:

HK-based Irish photographer Gráinne Quinlan's photo project on "Why do you do what you do?". The team asked several foreign domestic workers to write down why they left their home country to work in another city. Photo via Tom Grundy.

Hong Kong-based Irish photographer Gráinne Quinlan's photo project on “Why do you do what you do?”. The team asked several foreign domestic workers to write down why they left their home country to work in another city. Photo via Tom Grundy.


“I am very lucky as my family supports my education”. The employers also give her some degree of freedom. They allow her to study provided that it would not affect her work. That's why she could enroll in a part-time degree without burden. Her friends’ experiences are very different. Many employers are worried that once they start studying, they won't be able to take care of work. Some of her friends employers openly opposed to their request for permission to study. Some of her friends are too afraid to ask and have to study in secret after their employers go to sleep. Some friends have to suspend their studies once every few months.

A number of non-government organizations in Hong Kong are working together to pressure the government to abolish the mandatory live-in rule passed in 2003. Vera So, contributing reporter from inmediahk.net, reported the civil society press conference:

關注外勞權益的移民工牧民中心代表Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez稱,難以接受刑事化外傭在外留宿的自由。她又指,強制留宿除令外傭被逼居於極狹小的空間如廚、雜物房、廁所等,更增加她們遭受家庭暴力的風險。

Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez from Mission For Migrant Worker (MMW) said it is unacceptable that the freedom to live-out is being criminalized. The mandatory live-in rule forces the maid to live in spaces like the kitchen, toilet and storeroom and increase the risk of domestic violence.

In a survey conducted by MMW, among the 3,004 foreign domestic workers who they had interviewed, around 30 percent do not have their own room and have to sleep in the corridors or living room. 80 percent have experienced different degree of violence – 60 percent verbal violence, 18 percent physical violence and 6 percent sexual violence. The situation is very grave. Cynthia said the live-in rule has been implemented for ten years and it is time that it was reviewed.



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