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NGOs bat for decent accommodations for FDHs

16 May 2017

By Daisy CL Mandap

Air-conditioned dog house
on the balcony was upheld as “suitable”
by a magistrate’s court

Foreign domestic workers who are not given suitable living quarters by their employers should at least be allowed to remain in Hong Kong while they process new work contracts.

This was what Eni Lestari, chair of Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, told the group that gathered for the launch on May 10 of an in-depth study conducted by the Mission for Migrant Workers on living accommodation of women migrant workers (MDW).

“We should be able to change jobs if we are not given suitable accommodation,” said Lestari. “This is basic respect that must be given to a worker”.

At the launch of the study titled “Pictures from the Inside”, program coordinator Norman Carnay said there was a need to define what constitutes “suitable accommodation” which under the standard employment contract, is supposed to be given a MDW.

But what is considered unsuitable? As it is, Carnay said only two examples are listed in the standard contract: makeshift beds in corridors, and a room shared by the worker with an adult or teenager of the opposite sex.

Given this, almost everything else appears fair play, especially since the policy is premised on what Carnay said was “an excuse” about the small sizes of flats in Hong Kong.

Thus, in the study, a number of the 3,075 MDWs who took part provided extreme examples that could put the “suitable” requirement to the test.

Pictures provided in the study showed the workers sleeping in coffin-like spaces inside kitchen cabinets, in storage rooms, living room sofas with the wet laundry hanging overhead, and in an airconditioned “dog house” in a balcony.

Initially, more than half (57%) of those surveyed said they had their own room, while a smaller number, at 42%, declared outright to not having this privilege.

But on further inquiries, a third of those who said they had their own room admitted that their room was being used for other purposes, mainly for storage.

Thus, it appeared that 61%, or 3 out of 5 of the more than 340,000 FDWs in Hong Kong either do not have a room to sleep in, or are put in a room that is used for purposes.

He cited one case where the worker was made to sleep in the living room which doubled as travel agency, where male workers would work up to late at night sometimes.

More troubling was the finding that 5 of the respondents were made to sleep in toilets. Extrapolating, Carnay said that “around 500 MDWs currently declare they sleep in toilets”.

Lestari also cited cases handled by AMCB where the worker had to sleep on the bare floor for seven months, or one who contracted cancer after sleeping for five years on the living room sofa for only four to five hours each night.

“Maybe if you’re a house guest, sleeping on the sofa for one week is okay, but beyond that, it makes you crazy,” she said.

Asked to provide definite examples of what the Mission would consider “unsuitable accommodation”, Carnay said sleeping in the toilet, kitchen or cupboard or a space where wet laundry is hanging overhead, are definitely no-no. Living room spaces, especially if the flat is small, could be acceptable unless there are male adults who could intrude into the worker’s private space while she is resting.

“But of course, we can discuss this further,” he said.

What is important, Carnay said, is that there are definite figures to back up any petition to press on the government to provide better accommodation for MDWs.

To do this, the Mission hopes the authorities would (1) define categorically what “suitable accommodation” mean; (2) institutionalize effective regulatory and monitoring mechanisms on accommodation provided to MDWs; (3) develop a complaint system for migrant workers that will address accommodation issues; (4) raise awareness among employers about unsuitable accommodation and the rights of helpers regarding living standards; (5) align Hong Kong’s policy with international standards; and (6) make live-out arrangement for helpers optional.

Referring to the proposal to restore live-out arrangement, Carnay said the idea is to make this an optional arrangement.

“We are not advocating for everyone, or a majority of domestic workers, to live out. What we want is to take out the criminalization aspect (of the live-out ban), said Carnay.
He also dismissed what he called as “malicious allegation” that workers will abuse the live-out option by moonlighting.

“These are fulltime workers who work 10-12 hours, they will be too tired to moonlight,” said Carnay.

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