HONG KONG —
In the last few weeks, abusive employers of migrant domestic workers have come under the spotlight across Asia and the Middle East.
In Malaysia, a couple was sentenced to death for starving 26-year-old Isti Komariyah.
Another young Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, has returned to Hong Kong to support the prosecution of employers whose alleged abuse left her in a coma.
These events could signal a fairer future for millions of other women in domestic service.
In Erwiana's case, she first arrived in the city in May 2013, a newly hired domestic helper hoping to earn enough money to support her family and her education.
However, Riyanti, a fellow domestic helper and mother of two, said, “In January, I found her at Hong Kong airport, beaten, unable to walk; basically trying to escape.
"Her employers treated her like a slave; worse than an animal,” Riyanti said.
Riyanti helped Erwiana, the daughter of farmers from East Java, onto a flight back home. There, images of Erwiana’s injuries and stories of her 20-hour working days sparked national outrage.
International Labor Organization (ILO) figures suggest there are 50 million domestic workers globally.
Around 5 million are Indonesian women who, last year, sent home almost $10 billion in remittances to support their families.
Abuse accute in Middle East
Abuse of these vulnerable workers is rife, particularly of those working in the Middle East, said Audrey Guichon of Anti-Slavery International
“The kafala system is in place across all countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It ties migrants’ employment and residency to their employer. So if a worker leaves her job because she has been abused, she becomes illegal in that country. This very clearly facilitates exploitation by employers,” Guichon said.
In Saudi Arabia alone, 42 Indonesians are on death row. Half are believed to be housemaids, like Darsem Tawar, sentenced to death in 2011 for killing her employer, despite her plea that he was raping her at the time.
Authorities commuted her death sentence only after her supporters paid blood money (cash payment to a victim’s family in lieu of execution).
The Indonesian government this month negotiated improved conditions for its workers in Saudi Arabia, signaling the end of its three-year moratorium on the export of labor to the kingdom.
However, far more needs to be done, said Iweng Karsiweng of the Migrant Workers Rights Network.
“We are upset," said Karsiweng. "We believe the root of the problem is the Indonesian government itself, because we don’t have a law protecting migrant workers. They need to change the system. When you send people overseas, you need a law to protect those people.”
Since the adoption of ILO Convention 189 in 2011, momentum has been building globally to protect migrant workers from exploitation. But progress is slow, and just 13 countries have ratified the Convention, Guichon said.
“What we can be optimistic about, however, is that domestic workers around the world are starting to organize, including in the Middle East. They are starting to come out to claim their rights before policymakers, to remind policymakers they cannot ignore the fact they are providing essential support to society,” Guichon said.
Maids have taken to the streets in Hong Kong. Elsewhere, the Philippines — the world’s largest exporter of domestic labor — is one of the key backers of Convention 189, and Singapore is currently consulting on a law to protect the victims of indentured labor and debt bondage.
In Hong Kong, despite the authorities’ initial reluctance to prosecute Erwiana’s employers, expectations are high that justice will be done.
Concerns persist though, about agencies that charge exorbitant fees on loans for placing impoverished housemaids, as well as about employers who withhold salaries and basic freedoms.
The parallels with human trafficking cannot be ignored, said Archana Kotecha, head of legal at the NGO Liberty Asia
, particularly as agencies turn to cheaper domestic labor from developing countries like Burma and Bangladesh.
“Forced labor, debt bondage does happen in Hong Kong. People often think that because someone has been moved about legally, they are less of a victim than the person that has been bundled in the back of a truck and brought across the border illegally. That is simply not the case,” Kotecha said.
While Erwiana’s employers await trial in Hong Kong, and those accused of murdering Isti appeal their death sentence in Malaysia, Erwiana’s mother expresses her sadness that things should ever come to this.
“Despite everything, I try to maintain my belief that humans are fundamentally kind,” she said.