Domestic workers in Hong Kong have faced increased levels of physical and sexual abuse – including rape – in the wake of official advice that they stay locked down at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

According to rights groups the number of cases of severe physical abuse by Hong Kong employers – including beatings, groping, rape, long work hours and sleep deprivation – have risen significantly as a result of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions imposed on domestic workers.

domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers.
Domestic workers who suffered physical and sexual abuse and rights advocates from Mission for Migrant workers and AMCB. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The situation of those suffering abuse while following government advice to stay at home was made even worse by the fact that some employers barred them leaving home on their days off, effectively preventing them from seeking help.

Putri, 29, from Indonesia, took up her first overseas job in Hong Kong in 2019. Just days after she started working for a new employer in Yuen Long in February this year, she was asked by her female boss to give her husband a massage, during which he groped her breasts. In the following days, he tried to rape her on a living room sofa, where she slept at night. She fought back against his advances, she told a press conference on Tuesday.

“I was very scared and [was] shaking at that time. I wanted to leave but did not know where to seek help,” she said. Putri read out her statement about the alleged abuse in Bahasa via a video call in which her identity was protected.

domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers Putri
Putri told reporters her experience of rape through a video call. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Putri then said the same man raped her twice at around 3 a.m. the next day and again in the morning: “I tried to stop him but he was very strong,” she said. She subsequently requested to sleep on the roof of the house, a request which was initially rejected by the wife, but she was later given a mattress and some blankets to do so.

As well as the sexual assault, Putri was required to work from 5:30 a.m. until midnight because the living room sofa was her bed and she was only able to sleep after her employers finished watching television in the evening.

In March Putri discovered she was pregnant and the wife of the house where she worked took her to a doctor. She said her employers told her to either get an abortion, or face losing her job. Putri declined, continued with the pregnancy and sought help from an Indonesian rights group in late April, during her first day off in three months.

The 44-year-old male employer was arrested following a report to the police on May 19, police said. The man was taken into custody and was charged with three counts of indecent assault and one count of rape before a court two days later.

Herlina’s wound shortly after she received medical treatment (left) and on June 29 (right). Click to view. Warning: graphic image.
domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers Herlina
Herlina’s wound shortly after she received medical treatment (left) and on June 29 (right). Photo: Supplied, Selina Cheng.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body (AMCB) found that about 40,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong were given no rest days during the pandemic and 20,000 were given only one day off per month. Under the laws of Hong Kong, domestic workers are entitled to one day off every week as well as on labour holidays.

A separate survey by Mission for Migrant Workers found that the reports of sexual abuse and harassment suffered by the workers at their households tripled in 2020 and those of physical abuse increased by 2 per cent. About 7 out of 10 people said they worked more than 11 hours a day while 3 out of 10 said they worked more than 16 hours daily.

Government made it worse

Earlier this year, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Law Chi-kwong, urged migrant domestic workers to remain at their employers’ homes on their rest days while pro-establishment legislator Elizabeth Quat even proposed a lockdown on domestic workers during their holidays.

Hong Kong’s domestic workers have endured long work hours and lost days off during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have also been required to undergo mandatory Covid-19 tests, a move that rights activists described as discriminatory.

domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers Herlina
Herlina. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“The Hong Kong government telling us to stay at home made the situation worse: employers used this to imprison and enslave foreign domestic workers,” said Sringatin, an Indonesian activist from AMCB.

In another case of abuse, two Indonesian women, Herlina and Uun, were employed at the same household in Tuen Mun that had a total of four domestic workers. They were each assigned to work on a separate floor in a 4-storey house and were forbidden to talk to each other. The four were tasked with taking care of two adults, six children, 75 dogs, eight turtles and eight aquariums and birds.

Herlina suffered repeated beatings by her male employer using fishing rods. She was sometimes kept from sleeping as a punishment. “[S]ince February 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, we were prohibited from going outside and required to rest at home. We were only allowed to leave he house to buy food or send money,” Herlina said.

“Surprisingly, however, the employers have regularly invited their friends and relatives for a house party on Saturday nights until Sunday morning,” she said.

Police said it received a report of assault using fishing tools in Tuen Mun at about 5 a.m. on June 24. A 47-year-old man was arrested under suspicion of common assault and was released on bail on Tuesday.

domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers.
Selly (pseudonym) recounted her abuse and constant sexual harassment by her employer. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The domestic workers’ agency also confiscated their passports and employment contracts.

Finally in April, Herlina was asked to move three large fish aquariums but was forbidden from getting help from her co-workers. One of them dropped onto her left foot. She was not sent to the hospital immediately but was given antibiotics until the next day, when she received nine stitches in her wound, her statement said.

Two other women, Selly (pseudonym) and Eden faced other forms of physical abuse and sexual harassment before the sought assistance from rights groups.

domestic worker AMCB mission for migrant workers Herlina
Herlina. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

All five women have left their employers households and are living in shelters provided by Mission for Migrant Workers and AMCB, their representatives said. Herlina and Uun’s male employer was arrested on Monday for common assault, the NGOs said.

“All other workers in Hong Kong do not have to live in fear. Instead, if their job is not safe they can give notice and find safer work conditions. [Migrant domestic workers] deserve the same right.” A statement from the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body read.

💡If you are suffering from sexual or domestic violence, regardless of your age or gender, contact the police, Harmony House (click for details) and/or the Social Welfare Department on 28948896. Dial 999 in emergencies.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.