Many Hong Kong families are dependent on foreign domestic workers. However, problematic policies and legal limitations continue to lead to abuse and exploitation, which is brought to light every so often with high-profile cases such as that of Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih in 2014.
But even with more awareness, a recent study of 1,000 domestic workers by the Justice Centre Hong Kong, dubbed “Coming Clean,” revealed that one in six foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong finds herself in forced labor, while two-thirds reported signs of exploitation. Former domestic worker and full-time human rights photographer, documentarian and advocate Xyza Cruz Bacani weighs in on the issue.
Photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani moved to Hong Kong in 2006 when she was 19 years old. She joined her mom as a domestic worker, sending money back to their family in the Philippines. She asked for a camera in 2009 and picked up street photography, starting by documenting places around Hong Kong while out on errands to share with her mother, who doesn’t go out much.
Bacani later began documenting people, and human rights issues in 2014, which led to several art exhibitions and a Human Rights Fellowship at New York University. Now she’s traveling the world, documenting human rights abuses and producing documentaries in four different countries — Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, and UAE.
1. Sometimes Hong Kong’s busy nature conceals problems
The first thing I noticed about Hong Kong is that no one stops. Everyone is in a hurry and it’s very desensitized in some way. Even if someone pokes your eyes on a rainy day, no one stops to apologize. I think it’s very busy and you don’t always notice what’s going on underneath.
Everyone is trying to survive with the high rent and high cost of living, so I can understand if sometimes they don’t notice the human rights issues that are happening here. Everyone is trying to survive.
My mom never told me the situation before I came. I had this stupid idea when I was younger, it was like, “Oh Hong Kong is so beautiful, her life must be perfect.” I didn’t know the real situation. I tell other domestic workers to communicate with their children, so they know that their parents are working really hard to give them an education. And hopefully the kids will value it more and not take it for granted.
2. But problems are boiling underneath the surface
I started documenting human rights issues in early 2014 actually. I didn’t really have any idea at first. I knew that these things happen but I wasn’t aware about how huge it was. I was shocked. Like, what the hell people, it’s 2014, 2015? This is modern slavery.
One of the cases that I photographed was a woman who was burned on the back. The owner “accidentally” put a pot of boiling water on the family’s shoe rack. But who does that? The doctor said she had to really rest, but the employer wouldn’t let her take any time off. The employer refused to give her medical leave and then terminated the woman.
It’s against the law to terminate for an accident that happens on the job. From there, I heard of more more cases, like sleeping on toilets, sleeping on the floor, emotional abuse, physical abuse, all kinds of abuse, really. Those kinds of cases are actually happening in Hong Kong every day.
3. Nothing has changed in years
I have been doing this for two years and nothing has changed. The government raised the [monthly] salary by like HK$100 but that’s like nothing. These people just want to be treated like human beings. It’s surprising that Hong Kong people don’t know it’s happening and you even need these kinds of reports [like the Justice Centre’s] to tell people. Am I surprised? I guess I expected this.
If domestic workers need help, or get terminated in the middle of the night, they can go to the migrant center or the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge in Jordan. It’s a women’s refuge for domestic workers in Hong Kong. I volunteer there, build relationships with women and hear their stories.
People should learn to respect the job and treat it as work. If people start doing that, then they will realize that this person is actually just doing her job. Why do you not call them domestic workers, instead of helpers? It’s more politically correct and it gives more dignity. You treat them like a worker. And how do you treat a worker? You give them proper rest, a salary, rights that they deserve.
4. Some problems are built into the system
Well, the two-week rule is a problem. If you’re terminated, you have two weeks to find a new job. And you aren’t making any money at that time. It’s a problem because it can cost HK$20,000 or $30,000 to come here — hiring an agency, borrowing money from loan sharks or selling property.
They kind of force you into this debt bondage situation. You don’t have a choice. You can’t go home because you have loans back home to pay off, and you need to support your family. So you have to find other ways. They borrow money from banks and loan sharks to stay afloat.
The live-in rule is also a problem because of the small living space here. Sometimes the employer actually wants to let the domestic worker live outside, but it’s against the law, so the worker ends up sleeping on the floor in a closet.
If you’re a domestic worker here, no matter how long you stay, you can never be a resident here. Unlike if you’re a white person, after seven years, you can stay here in any other job.
Even if a woman gets pregnant, and the child is born here. The child is not considered a Hong Kong resident because the kid’s mom is a domestic worker. That sucks. Give the child a chance. We are like refugees in all but name.
5. People can’t actually afford domestic workers
If you have HK$15,000 a month, you are allowed to hire a domestic worker. That’s like nothing. You are hardly able to take care of yourself, and your family, and your own rent. You are barely surviving already, so how can you expect to take in a new person and treat them okay?
They need to make that entry point higher. If you can’t afford a domestic worker, don’t hire one. I mean, rent here is at a minimum HK$8,000 for a tiny flat, but where are you going to put your worker? Sometimes I think abuse happens because a person is already so stressed out.
The system means that there’s a power dynamic that gives it all to the employers, and the domestic worker has no power. If we make it more balanced, then it would be psychologically more balanced.
If you have a job, and your employer harasses you or terminates you without a proper reason, then you can sue. But domestic workers don’t have that right. They can be terminated anytime, for any reason, even in the middle of the night.
I am one of the lucky ones and one of the few. I have a very good relationship with the employer. I respect them, they respect me. I do work, they pay me a salary. That’s how it should be.
I hope they fix the system, give more rights to domestic helpers. I know Hong Kong, when compared with other countries like UAE or Singapore, has better rights but it’s nowhere near enough. Especially with the live-in situation, the two-week rule, the pregnancy nationality issues — I hope they fix it.
It will take a lot of years, I think. It’s not tomorrow, but let’s not lose hope. That’s why we plant these seeds of awareness in kids. I like to talk to kids at schools because I think it opens the eyes of the next generation.
You have to remember that these women are someone’s mom, or daughter, or sister, and they are human beings too. You just don’t know what they’ve been through and what they’ve given up to be here and do this job.