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Pinay tests rule on ‘suitable accommodation’

19 June 2017

By Daisy CL Mandap
Mariel's sleeping space beside the washer

A Filipina who claims to have been made to sleep in a cramped space in the kitchen is set to appear at a labour court on July 7 to test the “suitable accommodation” clause in the standard employment contract for foreign domestic workers.

Mariel P., who is helped by the Mission for Migrant Workers, is trying to seek payment for unpaid wages and one month’s pay in lieu of notice before the Minor Employment Claims Adjudication Board or Mecab.

During an earlier attempt at conciliation between the two sides on June 8, Mariel’s employer reportedly denied any liability, saying it was the Filipina who terminated their contract and was thus not entitled to any payment.

Mariel, on the other hand, insisted she was entitled to her claims under the “constructive termination” clause in employment contracts. This applied when she was made to sleep in the kitchen and before this, in the terrace of the employer’s house. She also claims to have been made to sleep for no more than three hours each day, given only leftover food, and was constantly subjected to verbal abuse.

She has presented photos of her sleeping space and the leftovers she was allegedly fed to support her claim.

In a decision issued by the High Court last year, however, a kitchen space was deemed as “suitable accommodation” for a domestic worker. In a more recent ruling, the Eastern magistracy rejected another maid’s claim that a makeshift structure on the terrace, which was airconditioned but was no bigger than a doghouse, was unsuitable as living space.  

But the Mission’s Edwina Antonio who is helping Mariel pursue her claim, said the parameters of the “suitable accommodation” clause should continue to be tested. She said the Mission is appealing the decisions in both cases.

“We cannot accept that a migrant worker could be made to sleep in a place where she is deprived of privacy and dignity,” Antonio said.

In a study released recently by the Mission, it was found that 3 out of 5 foreign domestic workers were not given their own room, or were put in rooms used for other purposes, like as a storeroom, pantry, kitchen or laundry. Around 500 were found to sleep in toilets.

Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre said that he is currently working with his Indonesian counterpart on a plan to make employers and their recruitment agents disclose the exact place where the domestic worker will be made to sleep. The information is then passed on to the worker, who will have the option of backing out or continuing with the employment.

Labatt dela Torre said the idea is to give workers the freedom to choose their working and living conditions.

According to the Mission report, the same requirement is already being implemented by Thailand’s consulate, which probably accounts partly for the relatively small number of Thai domestic workers in the territory.

Often, the reason given for not providing a decent-sized sleeping and living space for a migrant worker is the tiny size of flats in Hong Kong. But that appears to be not the case with Mariel, who had previously worked for four years and nine months in Qatar but decided to try her luck in Hong Kong because of the higher pay.

When she first started working for her employer in their former residence in early March this year, she said there was a room intended for her use, but she was often made to sleep in an open space in the terrace, despite the chilly weather. At other times, she was told to sleep in the living room.

Screen grab of Mariel’s call for help.
On Mar 2, she sent a text message to her employment agency, Royal Corporation, to complain about being made to sleep in the terrace, along with a picture of her pillow and blankets amid a pile of carton boxes. She said she did not get any help then.

Mariel claims to have suffered all sorts of abuse from her employer’s wife, who often called her “stupid” and “lazy”, and had thrown a cup and a plate in her direction on two separate occasions during fits of anger.

But she said she slept no more than three hours each day, and was often deprived of food. One time, she said she was not given any food until 4pm and when she begged her employer for some, received a scolding instead. At times, she was given leftovers which had been in the refrigerator for weeks.

At about 8am on Mar 25, she said she fainted from overwork, lack of sleep and food, and hit her head on the faucet while washing a pail full of winter clothes. Her employer’s wife reportedly ignored her appeals for help, while her employer let three hours pass before taking her to the hospital, where she was left with no money to pay for her fare and other expenses. Mariel took four stitches for her head wound.

She hit her head on the faucet due to exhaustion and lack of sleep
Mariel said she suffered all the abuse because she was told she needed to pay the employer if she decided to break her contract, and she was still heavily in debt because of the fees she had to pay to come to Hong Kong.

But four days later, Mariel decided she could take no more and served notice of  termination. That was when the alleged abuses escalated.

Shortly after midnight on Apr 4, Mariel said she was forced out of her employer’s house in Ma On Shan, despite her appeal to be allowed to stay for the night. Cold and hungry, she said she called the police, who convinced her employer to let her back in at about 3:30am. She said she was then told to work until 5am, when she was allowed to sleep with instructions that she needed to get up at 7am.

She failed to wake up as told, but at about 7:45am, she said she was awakened by her employer’s wife kicking her head with her shoe, and telling her she needed to hang clothes.

She did get up but on seeing the pile of clothes and shoes that her madam had purposely left out for her to wash and fix, Mariel decided to wake up her employer to tell him that she was quitting. Her employer reportedly told her she needed to pay them first, but relented when she insisted on leaving.

Mariel said that because she had been in Hong Kong for just over two months, she did not know that she could have left her employer’s house at any time because of the abuse she was made to suffer.

“Lahat kasi ng tinanong ko, ang sabi kailangang magbayad ako ng isang buwang suweldo kapag ako ang nag-terminate,” she said.

She now wants her story told so others who may suffer the same fate would know what to do, that there is hope.
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