Hong Kong's abused foreign workers trying to break silence

Sexual harassment is "rampant" and other abuse is commonly endured by Hong Kong's foreign domestic workers, according to support groups who are advocating on their behalf and encouraging them to speak up and seek help.

Jasmine Singun, a domestic worker who came to Hong Kong from the Philippines a year and a half ago, was not one of the lucky ones.

There are an estimated 300,000 foreign "helpers" in Hong Kong and those who get hired by families who treat them well, pay the minimum monthly wage or maybe even more, and give them a reasonable workload, say they are lucky.

Singun did not work for one of those families. The husband, on two occasions, came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her in a sexual embrace, she recounted in an interview. Singun said he also repeatedly made inappropriate comments about her appearance.

Jasmine Singun, a domestic worker in Hong Kong, was sexually harassed by her male employer but was afraid to tell anyone. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

She didn't know what to do or where to turn for help. She was afraid to tell the wife, for fear she would be accused of making it up and causing trouble. If domestic workers quit or get fired they only have 14 days to find another job or else they have to go back home. They literally can't afford to report abuse and risk losing their meagre incomes.

Singun never told anyone about her employer's behaviour. She was fired anyway, and she says that was a relief. She quickly found another job and is much happier.

She shared her story at a recent rally that was held to draw attention to sexual harassment and other abuses endured by the city's helpers who cook, clean, and take care of children or elderly relatives — often for 16 hours a day. The women wore medical face masks with red Xs drawn across their mouths to symbolize how they often feel forced to keep quiet.

"A lot we feel are suffering in silence," said Norman Uy Carnay, an advocate with Mission for Migrant Workers. His group does public awareness campaigns and education workshops to help empower women to speak up about abuse. It also provides counselling services, including to those who have fled to Bethune House, a shelter for migrant women.

Mobile care centre offers services to workers

Carnay said Mission for Migrant Workers is also focused on caring for the caregivers and that theme was on full display at a recent event to celebrate its 32nd anniversary.

Booths were set up offering medical checkups, counselling, massage therapy, and plenty of information about workers' rights and the services available to them if they need help. There were laptops so they touch base with their families back home and a photo booth to snap some fun photos.

It's a mobile care centre, said Carnay, and it pops up in different locations around the city about once a month.

"The message is that Hong Kong society should show care for the migrant workers," he said. "We should be concerned about their welfare; we should give care to our caregivers because they are giving care to us."

A group of domestic worker employers and Hong Kong citizens formed an organization called Open Door in 2009 to show they care. Doris Lee, one of the founders, said there is a lot of abuse going on and employers like her have to speak out on behalf of their workers, who struggle to find a voice.

"It's hard for them to read and write in Chinese, and influence the media and influence society. They have no political rights, they cannot vote, they have no voice in the legislature," she said. Employers have a role to play in bringing about the legislative changes needed to protect workers, said Lee.

Her group also organizes events to try and bridge the divide between Hong Kong people and the foreign workers so there is more understanding about their lives.

Verbal and physical abuse, underpayment, long working hours, not enough food and lack of privacy are common problems reported to the support groups. Carnay said one client not only had to share a room, but a bed, with the family’s 18-year-old son. Another woman was beaten up by her boss because she washed her hair during the Chinese New Year holiday and that is considered bad luck.

Sexual harassment is 'rampant'

Then there are the cases of rape, sexual assault and harassment like the kind Singun experienced. The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Union, the group that organized the rally she spoke at, says sexual harassment is "rampant" and some employers have a complete disregard for providing an appropriate work environment.

Some have watched pornography in front of their workers, or walked around in their underwear, others have installed video cameras in bedrooms and bathrooms, according to the group.

The union is working hard to get the government to eliminate the live-in requirement and the 14-day rule, saying both are policies that prevent women from reporting abuse.

An increasing number of women, however, are finding the courage to come forward, if the most recent statistics from Carnay's group are any indication.

In 2011, it served about 3,390 walk-in visitors, answered more than 1,600 phone calls and was working on 2,382 cases, up from 1,245 the year before. The percentage of cases related to sexual and physical violence doubled to 16 per cent from 2010.

Those are just the statistics from one group – there are several others that are helping migrant workers: the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, the Filipino Migrant Workers Union, the Indonesian Migrant Muslim Alliance, the Overseas Nepali Workers Union, the Thai Regional Alliance and more.

The groups provide moral support in addition to their advocacy work. It's not easy to be away from home, particularly when they're in a place where they feel discriminated against, some of the workers said in interviews.

"It is very hard for us to leave our families in the Philippines. But we have no choice, the jobs are here," said Cherry Narag. She doesn't make much money, but she sends some of it home every month. She's 33 years old and when asked if she wants to have her own family one day, it's clear that's nowhere on her radar.

"I never think about myself. I don't have a choice," she said. Another domestic helper, Purnima Shah, is 42 years old and similarly focused on supporting her family back in Nepal. "I'm happy because we just work and have money and can support our family. We are single but we are happy," she said.

The sense of community among domestic workers is obvious to anyone walking by one of the city's parks or public squares where hundreds of the helpers gather on weekends and enjoy a few hours of free time together.

Advocates say they hope these women will soon get the respect they deserve.

"These workers care for everyone doing everything. Why don't we just give the care back to them? They're not asking for a lot," said Carnay.