CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Abusive employer convicted but workers’ lot still not a happy one

HONG KONG (SE): At the launch of Erwiana: Justice for All, a documentary on the traumatic experience of abused domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, community leaders were critical of the government attitude towards migrant workers in Hong Kong, saying that one year on from the conviction of her abusive employer nothing has changed.

The documentary was launched on March 27 at the City University of Hong Kong in Kowloon Tong.

Directed by Gabriel Ordaz, it follows Sulistyaningsih’s struggle to recover her health and prepare for the trial of her former employer, Law Wan-tung, for the horrific physical abuse she had inflicted on her.

She was left weighing only 25 kilogrammes, partially incontinent and barely able to walk, as well as with head injuries and blurred vision.

Law was found guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment in February last year.

Ordaz said that he decided to make the documentary in order to show that a change in the treatment of migrant workers in Hong Kong is an urgent matter.

He described the documentary as going beyond Sulistyaningsih’s story to explore the increasing forced migration and the maltreatment of people who leave their homes in search of better work opportunities.

Sulistyaningsih broke down at the launch as she watched herself on screen recalling how in her childhood days she begged her mother not to leave home to work overseas, but at the tender age of 22, she ended up following the same path.

She lamented that neither the Hong Kong nor the Indonesian governments have made any real effort to improve the conditions in which migrants labour in the city one year after her high profile case ended.

She said that workers are still as vulnerable to abuse today as they were when she left to return home.

Sulistyaningsih also spoke of her new life in Indonesia as an economics student at a Catholic university, which for her is the fulfillment of a dream that she had harboured since she left high school.

She added that she hopes that her experience and the publicity that her case has received will be a source of real empowerment for others.

The launch was organised by the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body.

The group said in a statement, “Though Erwiana was able to seek justice, the fact remains that many foreign domestic workers still suffer from different forms of abuse, forced labour, discrimination, inequality, uncertainties at work and, in some cases, even death due to violence or extreme depression.”

The statement repeats an appeal from the migrant representative body for the Hong Kong government to introduce real reform into its policies covering migrant work, as the current situation encourages just one more form of modern day slavery.

It stresses that the most oppressive limitations placed upon migrant workers are the old bogeys, the two-weeks from job termination-and-you-are-out of town rule, as well as the live-in their employer’s home mandate.

The statement also calls on the government to create legally binding regulations on employment agencies, as a contributing factor to the treatment Sulistyaningsih received was the negligence shown by her employment agency when she lodged a complaint.

While the government says it will release a code of conduct on employment agencies early this year, the group believes it will not be of much help to the workers as it will have no legal binding power.

Jackie Hung Ling-yu, from the Justice and Peace Commission, said at the launch that she appreciates the effort from the director of the documentary in recording Sulistyaningsih’s  story.

She added that she hopes it can be shown in The Philippines and Indonesia so people planning to work overseas can get a better appreciation of the importance of fighting for their rights.

Hung lamented that even though she is now behind bars, Law still has not admitted any fault on her own behalf and is working at currying public sympathy by presenting herself as a victim in the whole affair.

Hung said that she was horrified to read a report about the grievances Law expressed in Next Magazine on February 4, which she described as being presented in a one-sided manner, focussing only on the suffering of an employer who believes that she was framed by an employee.

Hung said compensation for Sulistyaningish is a matter of justice, but the report presented Law as a victim of injustice when she was blocked in transferring ownership of her property to her husband in order to avoid paying a court claim of over $800,000 to Sulistyaningsih.

She pointed out that comments from the leaders of the migrant communities should have been included in the Next Magazine article to give the story some balance in its presentation.

Hung explained that she called the magazine to make a complaint, but it was ignored.

Still, she said the migrant rights workers did a wonderful job in the case, as they are the ones who advised Sulistyaningsih to file an injunction forbidding Law to transfer any property, and they were successful.

Hung was strong in saying that she does not think that Hong Kong people have learned anything from Sulistyaningish’s case, as incidents of abuse are still numerous and those who dare to file cases against their employers are still being demonised in Chinese discussion forums.

She explained that migrant workers are frequently referred to as liars who bring tragedy upon their employer’s families.

Hung was critical of the Next Magazine story calling it irresponsible, as she thinks it will only encourage more racism and hatred, and put the relationship between employers and foreign workers back years.

Law Pui-shan, the policy research officer from the commission, told the Sunday Examiner that she was disappointed that one year after Sulistyaningsih won her case in court, the government has not made any policy reform and migrants still live and work in a highly vulnerable situation.

She said that she believes a code of conduct, even though it may have no legal binding power, is still something better than nothing.

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