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Mean balls

08 May 2017

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

It’s the season to be mean, as can be gleaned from a rash of cases brought to our attention recently.

First, there’s the case of Mildred Ladia who was hauled to court for admitting that she ate some of the 10 pieces of meatballs she took from her employer’s freezer in May last year. But it was not only she who ate the meatballs, said Mildred, but also the employer’s mother.

Nevertheless, Mildred was arrested (and not the mother, who strictly speaking, could have been held as an accessory to the supposed crime), and allowed temporary liberty after posting a $1,000 bail.

After nearly a year of uncertainty during which she subsisted on the generosity of people at Bahay Natin in Yuen Long where she took refuge, Mildred was prosecuted for theft.

The magistrate, even after noting that the employer had already deducted $100 from Mildred’s salary for the rather pricey meatballs, convicted her of the offence, then imposed a fine of $800.

Terrible as that may sound, it barely compares with the more pernicious consequence of Mildred having to live with a criminal record, and being barred from taking up employment in Hong Kong again.

Little wonder that when the case hit the headlines, the overriding reaction among netizens was one of disgust, even outrage.

Outspoken activist Eman Villanueva was so enraged that he fired off a letter to Consul General Bernie Catalla and Labour Attache Jalilo de la Torre, asking for the blacklisting of Mildred’s barrister employer.

Eman summed up the case best when he used the words “mean balls” to show how one’s lack of compassion could have such dire effects on another person.

More chilling, said Eman, was the implication that a domestic worker could be charged with theft if she ate food taken from inside the house of her employer, who is supposed to feed her in the first place.

Where does the obligation to feed a domestic helper start and where does it end? If the yardstick is taking and eating food without prior permission, then most of our workers are in danger of suffering the same fate.

But what could have been another test case for the rights of migrant domestic workers was not to be. Mildred, who spoke of still being traumatized by her ordeal and listless because she had been jobless for months, decided not to pursue an appeal against her conviction, or a claim for $16,000 in unpaid wages that an NGO supporting her said she was entitled to.

It had been a bruising year for the mother of three, and one would be hard put blaming her for this decision.

While still chewing on this sorry development, another case of unimaginable meanness, even neglect, was brought to our attention.

Leonita Quinto, 46 years old, single and of no known medical condition, died suddenly at her employer’s house on Apr 4. From police records, it would seem that Leonita had lain in bed complaining of severe headache for 15 hours, but the employer did not give her medicine, or seek medical help.

Leonita’s younger sister Imelda, who had flown in to claim the remains, told us that her ate had looked forward to returning home by Apr 19, when the one-month notice she had served her employer would have expired.

The cause of Leonita’s sudden demise won’t be known until the post-mortem results are released in about three months, but for now, Imelda will have to grapple with the thought that her sister could still be alive had she received immediate medical attention.

A third case of meanness came our way as we were about to go to press. Ruth Daria, who we met when she won a case for overcharging against her former employment agency, told us of how she had to file a case of assault against her employer and his new wife.

Ruth said the assault happened when she returned home from her day-off, and was confronted with complaints about how she had caused a hairline crack on a plastic laundry hanger.

The confrontation escalated into a shouting match, until Ruth was allegedly shoved by the couple out of the house. Ruth said she was harmed as she tried to get back inside to get her bag and her cell phone so she could call the police.

From Ruth’s account, it would seem that the assault was just the latest in a string of abuse she was made to endure while at her employer’s house. She showed photos of a wardrobe with a barely noticeable chip which she said she was accused of causing, and for which $200 was deducted from her salary. There was also a bag of rice she was made to pay because it was no longer vacuum-sealed and according to the employer, was already bad. Yet, it was not thrown away.

All the while, Ruth said she was subjected to repeated verbal abuse by the couple.

These three recent examples of how mean-spirited people could wreak havoc on our worker’s lives show that Hong Kong is a long way away from providing adequate protection to one of its most vulnerable sectors.

Thus, we should remain vigilant and ever conscious of the need to keep our workers informed, and to fight for their rights. There simply is no excuse for tolerating discrimination, abuse, or even plain meanness from anyone.

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