“It was like I wasn’t even human. They treated me worse than an animal,” said Punya*.
Punya, a youthful looking woman in her late 30’s, has worked hard most of her life. She married at a young age, but after giving birth to a son, her husband soon left her for someone else. Since then, she became the sole breadwinner in her family, often having to go overseas because it meant better pay than staying in her native Sri Lanka. As her son grew to be a teenager, she longed to be home to spend more time with him.
One day, she was introduced to an employment agency in Sri Lanka who told Punya that there were jobs in Hong Kong. The salary and terms were much better than what she was getting in the Middle East where she had previously worked, and so she thought she would give it a try. Of course, she had pay over HK$15,000 up front for the agency fees and buying her own air ticket. She was never given a contract, nor asked to sign anything except a blank piece of paper. It was only after she arrived in Hong Kong that she found out her employer had a copy of her contract.
Upon arrival, she was asked to hand over her passport and identification documents to the agent who received her. She was taken to a boarding house run by the agency and stayed there for about 2 weeks. During this time, she was asked to work at the agent’s own home, cooking and cleaning without pay. She was not permitted to leave the boarding house unless accompanied by the agent, who would sometimes take Punya out on her personal appointments. Punya was not given any rest days throughout this period, working 13- to 15-hour days every single day, and often being verbally abused by the agent.
This, Punya soon found out, was just a foretaste of what was to come. After about 2 weeks at the employment agency, Punya was finally taken to her employer’s home.
There, it was made clear what her work conditions would be: working from 6:30am to 10pm everyday; sleeping on the floor of the toddler’s room; additionally working at the employer’s parents’ home; and only being allowed to eat stale leftover food that was deemed unfit for the rest of the family. Sometimes, she would even be given food that was chewed and spat out by the children. Although her day supposedly ended at 10pm, she was still expected to care for the toddler throughout the night, and so she would often not be able to sleep until 1 or 2 in the morning. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Punya was also often verbally abused and physically threatened by her employer as well as the two children. The children would verbally and physically abuse her and play tricks on her, all while the mother looked on. They spat at her, threw rubbish on her plate so she couldn’t eat what little she was given, and once the 6-year-old even smeared his feces on her.
Punya did try to complain to the employment agency, both in Hong Kong and Sir Lanka, but her pleas always fell on deaf ears. But due to her persistent complaints to her brother in Sir Lanka (who would then ask the agency to do something), her employer eventually confiscated her mobile phone as well. In two months of work, Punya was only given 3 rest days. Only then was she given her mobile phone and ID card. Because Punya was unfamiliar with the employment laws in Hong Kong or the rights of a domestic worker, she didn’t know where to go for help. On her third rest day, she finally met another Sri Lankan domestic worker who helped her find assistance with a local NGO. She then decided she was never going back to her employer again, and sought shelter with the NGO.
Punya’s struggle is a long one, as she is still currently staying at a safe house and enduring the laboured process of bringing her case to court. The abuses she suffered clearly places her as a victim of human trafficking and labour exploitation, and patiently awaits the day when she can see justice done for her and many others like her.
*All names and identifying information have been changed to to protect the identity of the survivors.
Indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation:
- Coercive recruitment – debt bondage, HK$15,000 agency fee
- Restriction of movement – not permit to leave unless accompany by agency
- Exploition – excessive working hours; bad living condition; physical and verbal abuse
- Coercion at destination – retention of passport and mobile phone
Are you or someone you know being trafficked?
Is human trafficking happening in your community? Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying more victims and helping them find the assistance they need.
To reach out or get help for suspected cases of human trafficking in Hong Kong, please contact us at connect@100storiesHK.org.
Story provided by Stop Trafficking of People (STOP).