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Domestic workers’ sleep marred by legal loopholes

HONG KONG (SE): Groups monitoring the rights of foreign migrant workers in Hong Kong have long pointed to problematic areas of the code of practice that covers their employment, noting that despite much huff and puff from both governments and consulates, the situation continues to deteriorate.
 
The results of a study released by the Mission for Migrant Workers on May 10 reveals that difficulties arise from loopholes in the policy governing what constitutes suitable accommodation for workers, something that rights groups believe should be a priority in both legislation and policing, as the policy requires all migrant workers to live-in at their employers’ homes.
 
In a presentation entitled Pictures from the Inside at St. John’s Cathedral, photographs show a variety of examples offered by employers to many workers.
 
They are expected to sleep on a sofa in the living room, under clothes that have been hung out to dry, on the floor of a packed storeroom, inside cupboards or even the toilet or shower alcove.
 
One photograph shows a one-metre-long box on the roof of an apartment block; its only salvation being that it does have air conditioning.
 
The Mission for Migrant Workers pointed out that none of these arrangements fulfil what it believes constitutes suitable accommodation as mentioned in the employment policy, as all fall down in the area of acceptable privacy, which is also mentioned in the work contract.
 
The study is the result of research carried out on 3,075 foreign domestic workers selected by random sampling from early 2016 to early 2017.
 
The study found that over half (57 per cent) of respondents said they were provided with their own room. However, of that number, 33 per cent said that their own room is a multi-functional space, as it is also used as a storage area (64 per cent), place to hang clothes (49 per cent), ironing room or laundry (45 per cent), computer, study room or office (three per cent) or a place to keep pets (one per cent).
 
Of the 43 per cent who are not provided with their own room, 70 per cent said they share a room with children or elderly people, meaning they are on call throughout the night to attend to their needs.
 
Those saying they sleep in the living room account for 21 per cent; the kitchen three per cent and the pantry 0.6 per cent.
 
But the worst sleeping arrangements revealed in the study are six respondents who said they sleep on the balcony or the roof; five who bunk down in the toilet and three in a closet.
 
One domestic worker who participated in the focus group discussions said she had no choice but to accept her accommodation arrangement, because there was obviously no space in her employer’s house. Consequently, she did not ask them for a better deal.
 
Another said she agreed to the arrangements, because she did not want to be sent back to the agency and have to pay an extra fee for another job.
 
Wu Mei-lin, from the Hong Kong Women Workers Association, said not having adequate room in a home is just an excuse for providing poor accommodation.
 
“The point is whether an employer treats a migrant worker as a member of the family or not,” she stressed.
 
In the survey, 1,297 respondents said their employers’ homes had three bedrooms, while 562 said there were four bedrooms.
 
Eni Lestari, from the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body, said she is concerned about the poor quality of accommodation which affects the quality of sleep and thus the health of foreign domestic workers.
 
Lestari explained that of the 124 Filipinos and the 20 Indonesians who died in Hong Kong last year, a high percentage discovered their illnesses only a few months before death, showing a negligence in personal health care.
 
She believes that many domestic workers tend to neglect the quality of their sleep and food and, as a result, their health deteriorates. The longer they stay, the higher the risk that they will be prone to chronic illness without knowing about it.
 
The Indonesian community leader said that foreign domestic workers should be allowed to change jobs like other employees in the city, even during the probation period, if they discover their accommodation or the job requirements are not suitable.
 
Norman Uy Carnay, the programme coordinator, urged the government to clearly define what the words suitable accommodation in the employment contract for foreign domestic workers means, by listing guidelines based on the need for rest and health, safety and security, as well as privacy.
 
He also urged the government to set up a monitoring mechanism to check whether accommodation arrangements are actually up to speed and develop a complaint system for migrant workers to report problems.
 
A few participants in the forum pointed out that the rising property prices in the city are forcing families to live in small flats, which means live-in domestic workers will be facing a situation where their accommodation will become worse and worse.

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