"This 'cupboard' is my private bedroom," a worker explained. "I belong to the kitchen."
Photo by RG&B Images via Stocksy/Photo via Mission for Migrant Workers
The demand for cheap, foreign labor in Hong Kong's domestic work industry has left hundreds of thousands of women vulnerable. Broadly previously reported that the schools that train foreign-born workers for domestic jobs in the country put workers into crushing debt they can never pay back, thanks to low wages. And VICE recently reported on how Hong Kong's mandate for foreign domestic workers to live with their employers leads to rampant verbal and physical abuse.
A new report by Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) details just how bad the material conditions are for live-in domestic workers. After surveying over 3,000 migrant domestic workers, 98 percent of whom were women, the organization uncovered that many domestic workers are forced to sleep outside, on the floor, in bathrooms, or in tiny cubbyholes above kitchen cabinets.
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More than half of the women said that they have their own room—but over a third of those women reported that the room was not exclusively theirs. In some cases, their room is also used for laundry or storage. Seventy percent said they share a room with their employer's children. So, in essence, 61 percent of domestic workers don't have a space of their own to sleep, according to the report. Only one out of three have a bed.
Some domestic workers who have their own rooms report that they feel more secure and also have more defined working hours. Others, who report that they are told they are not allowed to close the doors to their rooms or that their employers can enter their room at any time, don't feel safe. "...I feel uncomfortable because my employer can enter my room at any time," one woman told MFMW.
There are less fortunate women, however, who don't even have a real room to share. One photo in the report shows a coffin-sized cabinet above a refrigerator and microwave. "This 'cupboard' is my private bedroom," a worker explained. "I belong to the kitchen." A different woman reported sleeping in a shed outside. "This is not a dog house," she's quoted saying. "This is my 'private room.'
And some women report that they are forced to sleep out in the living room. "I feel like I have no privacy because everyone at home can always see what I'm doing," another woman lamented. "For example, when I touch my personal things, like books or clothes, my employer will ask me, 'What is that?' or 'What are you doing?' and I don't like it."
This living situation leads to the women having poor sleep, being on-call 24 hours of the day, and feeling vulnerable. In the focus group for the study, the participants said they wished they had clearer hours and uninterrupted rest periods, but many of the women reported feeling powerless and scared to change their situation. "We agree [to the living conditions] because we need to earn money," one participant said. "If we disagree, of course, we're sent to the agency or we're sent to go back home, right?"
"It is appalling we are allowed to do this to a domestic worker. This is modern-day slavery," the lead researcher of the study, Norman Uy Carnay, told Reuters. "Most of this accommodation doesn't even approach basic human decency. Hong Kong is a world-class city; it shames Hong Kong to have this kind of treatment of its migrant domestic workers."
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Carnay added, "About 500 domestic helpers across Hong Kong are still sleeping in the toilet."
This is modern-day slavery.
The report indicates that the abysmal situation for foreign domestic workers is due to Hong Kong's mandatory live-in policy—enforced by the Immigration Department—which lacks standards for what qualifies as "suitable accommodation" for workers. Only two examples are listed as "unsuitable accommodation": "made-do beds in the corridor with little privacy" and "sharing a room with an adult/teenager of the opposite sex." When Hong Kong's Labour Department was asked to clarify if kitchen cabinets and bathrooms are "suitable accommodation," they said it was "not feasible" to do so, according to Reuter's.
International standards hold that domestic workers should have a "separate, private room that is suitably furnished, adequately ventilated, and equipped with a lock, the key to which should be provided to the domestic worker." The report urges Hong Kong to align with those standards and other best practices around the world.