Second class in Hong Kong

Roxanne Sonas had hopes of a bed during her stay with the family that employed her, but she slept on the floor. Her employer promised her that a bed would arrive when they changed apartments. “On the day we moved in, they had IKEA deliver a cabinet,” the 33-year-old Filipino domestic helper said, her eyes filling with tears. “It was horrible.” Sonas slept on top of the cabinet, without a pillow or blanket, in the living room of her employer’s home in Hong Kong’s trendy Causeway Bay neighborhood for five months, while she worked up to 22 hours a day, six days a week.

“Luckily it was summer so it wasn’t cold,” Sonas said. “I was very afraid. I was always crying.” After an arduous process involving the police and the Hong Kong labor department, she was eventually able to quit. There are laws to protect foreign domestic help-ers living in Hong Kong, most originally from the Philippines, but enforcement is not easy. Helpers that have signed contracts dating after July 2008 must be paid at least $3,850 HKD ($545 CAD) per month.

They are also entitled to one rest day per week, to be fed or receive a food allowance, and depending on their years of service, and receive between seven and 14 days of vacation time annually. Despite the laws, at least 15 percent of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are underpaid. Approximately 27 percent are verbally and physically abused and 22 percent do not receive weekly days off.

Helpers for Domestic Helpers (HDH) is an organization that provides free paralegal advice and counseling to domestic helpers in Hong Kong. The workers come from several countries, the majority from the Philippines but increasingly from Indonesia. 95 percent of Indonesian domestic helpers that come to HDH for advice report being underpaid, with only one or two days off per month. In addition, when a contract is terminated, foreign domestic helpers have only two weeks to find other arrangements or they must leave Hong Kong. This leaves little time to deal with grievances or collect owed wages, and deters abused workers from leaving their jobs. Many workers are placed by an agency. The maximum commission an employment agency may collect from a foreign domestic helper is no more than ten percent of the helper’s first month’s wages. In reality, however, many employment agencies impose substantial placement fees on helpers for months after they have arrived in Hong Kong. Sonas, for instance, paid nearly 90 percent of her monthly wages to an employment agency for three months, keeping only $500 HKD ($70 CAD) for herself each month.

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