A Hong Kong court Tuesday found a local woman guilty of physically abusing her maid in a case that has drawn international attention. However, rights activists question whether it will actually help improve the lives of domestic workers.
Law Wan-tung, 44, will serve time behind bars after being found guilty of 18 out of the 20 charges brought against her, including causing grievous bodily harm with intent, criminal intimidation and failure to pay wages.
During the trial, Law's live-in maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, described how she was mistreated.
The court heard how Law punched Sulistyaningsih in the mouth - fracturing her teeth - jammed a metal vacuum cleaner tube in her mouth - cutting her lip - and forced her to stand naked in the bathroom during winter while she pointed a fan at her.
Photos of the numerous injuries showed the maid's face, hands and legs covered with scabs and sores.
In addition, Sulistyaningsih was not allowed any days off and went unpaid.
Hong Kong law states that domestic workers must reside with their employers, and their wages are subject to a minimum of $517 (HK$4,010) per month.
Sulistyaningsih’s case sparked protests by domestic workers in Hong Kong and caused international outrage. It has helped bring attention to the living conditions of the 300,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong - most of whom are from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Holly Allen, executive director of Helpers for Domestic Helpers, said Sulistyaningsih is just one of thousands of domestic workers whose basic civil rights are routinely violated.
“What Erwiana has experienced is only the tip of the iceberg," she said, adding that the fact that the case was heard in court at all is unusual.
“I think the international media spotlight definitely has helped the case," she noted. "And as I have said there are many cases still languishing with the police. For example we have many cases, and the police have not concluded, not decided whether to take the matter to court.”
Allen said much work remains to be done to reduce discrimination and improve domestic workers' living and working conditions.
“We continue to lobby the government for improvement and changes to policies that would empower domestic workers to speak up for their rights and speak up when they are being abused or exploited," she said.
In addition to finding Law guilty, the judge ordered her to pay $3,700 in outstanding wages to Sulistyaningsih. Her sentencing is set for February 27.