One of the first things I ask Irene* is how she feels about her whole experience of coming to Hong Kong to work. She seems conflicted. “My feelings are mixed,” she tells me. “I feel proud that I have been able to support my family financially; on the other hand I feel sad that my employers have treated me like an animal.” Irene is about 40. Her hair is tied in a ponytail and she’s wearing a long-sleeved black shirt with a pair of faded jeans.
She was born and raised in a small village in Indonesia with her parents and two older siblings. Her father died when she was just 5 years old, and so her mother took care of all three children by herself. Her brother is seriously ill and unable to work, her sister is married, and Irene has one daughter from her first marriage. When we speak about working overseas and away from her family for the past 7 years, Irene seems frustrated but determined. “I need to take care of my family. My child, my brother and my mother.”
Back in 2010 Irene was referred to an overseas job agency by friend. Everything went smoothly, and the agency helped her to arrange an employment contract. In return, all Irene had to do was deduct HK$2,000 per month for the first 6 months of her contract (her agreed salary was HK$3,580).
Irene could not turn down the offer. Along with 14 other maids from Indonesia, she arrived in Hong Kong to work, full of hope at the possibility of being able to help her family, but all of them unaware of the nightmarish hardships that lay in wait.
According to the contract, Irene would have to take care of three children in her employer’s home as well as doing the general housework. This translated to working from 6am to 2am the next day. She made breakfast, did the school runs, accompanied her employer shopping for 3 hours at a time, hand-washed the laundry, cleaned the bathroom… the list went on. With each chore taking 2-3 hours, she had barely 5 minutes to eat a meal every day – which was generally leftovers. During the two and a half months with this first employer, Irene was allowed one cup of water per day, and was denied her own bed and a weekly rest day. All the time she was toiling away, she was having HK$2,000 deducted from her pay every month.
After trying and failing to receive help from the employment agency, Irene managed to run away from her employer’s home. However her passport and HKID card were being kept by the agency and the employer. The only thing she could do was seek help from the Indonesian Consulate. They helped her to retrieve her passport, but she had to file a police report in order to reclaim her ID card.
Hearing about this ordeal that Irene went through 7 years ago, I find myself speechless. “I’m sorry,” I say, after a moment of silence.
“I can’t hold back my tears when I talk about my first employer,” says Irene, beginning to cry. “I used to get hit in that apartment. I’m terrified of ever going back”.
Following this, Irene found her next employment in 2013, with a boss who she says lacked empathy, feelings, and a heart. Employed as a maid, she worked more like a robot for almost 4 years in this second home. When I ask her about these four years she replies in Cantonese, “Sister, I was sad every day. Every day I dreamt about my mother, my brother and my daughter.”
With the help of a non-profit organisation, Irene has been able to reclaim some of the financial loss from her first employer. Despite her miserable beginnings, she has not lost faith in finding employment with the Hong Kong people, and has recently begun a contract with a new family.
Just before the end of the interview I ask Irene if she has any words of advice for women suffering in a similar situation. She pauses before saying, ‘I think these experiences are tests given by God and it is always possible to overcome them. As long as we have our health, there’s always a chance for us to enjoy this world. The dawn comes after the darkest night!’
*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of the survivors.
Indicators of trafficking for labour exploitation:
- Deceptive recruitment – Irene was deceived about the nature of her job, living condition and salary
- Exploitation – Extremely long working hours and heavy workload; no respect of labour laws i.e. lack of food and rest days;
- Coercion at destination – confiscation of identity documents
- Abuse of vulnerability – dependency on exploiters, economic and family situations
Are you or someone you know being trafficked?
Is human trafficking happening in your community? Recognising 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 report suspected cases of human trafficking in Hong Kong, please contact us at connect@100storiesHK.org.
Story provided by Christian Action.