“On any given Sunday, thousands of women flock to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, sharing plastic containers of nasi goreng, dancing to pop music and gossiping with friends. The park is a rare expanse of green in a city otherwise covered in skyscrapers and serves as a meeting point for the city’s migrant domestic workers on their one day off from work.
On Sunday, March 22, hundreds of these women, dressed head-to-toe in black, used their weekly leave to march through the streets of Hong Kong in response to the death of Elis Kurniasih, a 33-year-old mother of two from Indonesia who died after a block of concrete fell from a nearby building onto her back and broke her spine.
Elis had been sleeping outside on the balcony of a guesthouse operated by an employment agency, according to the SouthChina Morning Post. Though her contract had been set to begin as soon as she entered Hong Kong, the employer had changed their mind on a start date, forcing Elis to find accommodation with the agency for two months. The police are conducting a criminal investigation into the case as possible manslaughter.
At the protest, dozens of migrant groups demanded an investigation into the death and called for the agency to be shut down. A woman, arms bound in ropes, marched before a mock coffin, with a sign that read: “Justice for Elis.” Both women and men, from Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia, sang the popular union song “Solidarity Forever” and chanted: “We are workers; we are not slaves.”
Hong Kong’s estimated 330,000 domestic workers – mostly women from Indonesia and the Philippines – often go to Asia’s financial centre to support families back home. The city offers them a competitive minimum salary of $530 per month, a guaranteed rest day each week and mandates that employers purchase health insurance and provide housing and food.
Yet, despite the promise of a chance to break out of poverty, rights groups say domestic workers often arrive in Hong Kong laden in debt accumulated during ‘training’, are not granted the same rights and protections as other workers in the city of seven million and face unlimited working hours.
Indeed, the plight of Hong Kong’s domestic workers came to the attention of international media last January, when an Indonesian woman named Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was found at Hong Kong airport, unable to walk, by a fellow Indonesian domestic worker who escorted her home.
Erwiana had lost half her body weight and was admitted to a hospital in Jakarta in a critical condition. She had been denied wages, starved, allowed to sleep only between the hours of 1pm and 6pm, and was beaten by her Hong Kong employer.
In February, Hong Kong District Court found Erwiana’s former employer guilty of 18 charges, including assault, criminal intimidation and infliction of grievous bodily harm with intent. She was sentenced to six years of jail time, and Erwiana became a face for Hong Kong’s domestic workers’ fight for better working conditions.
The case was the first in Hong Kong in which a judge found that a domestic worker had not been paid wages and was denied rest days. Despite the landmark ruling, however, domestic workers’ support groups believe justice remains elusive for the majority of women who find themselves abused by their employers in Hong Kong.