A former domestic worker whose Hong Kong employers were jailed in 2013 for abusing her has returned to the city for a court case in which she is seeking around HK$930,000 in compensation from them.

Kartika Puspitasari (centre) outside District Court, accompanied by migrant worker activists Cynthia Tellez (left) and Eni Lestari (right). Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Kartika Puspitasari, 40, appeared at District Court on Thursday morning accompanied by activists from migrant worker support groups. Wearing a light brown headscarf and a black face mask, she was soft-spoken and broke down, sobbing, as she testified through an interpreter.

The court heard that more than ten years on, Kartika – who has moved back to Indonesia where she lives with her husband and three children – continued to experience physical pain and mental trauma associated with her time working for her employers from 2010 to 2012. Kartika said she has not undergone treatment as it was too expensive given her financial circumstances.

The former domestic worker’s case made international headlines in 2013. Her male and female employers were jailed for three years and three months, and five years, respectively, after being found guilty of charges including assault and wounding with intent.

The couple were said to have scalded Kartika with a hot iron, slashed her with a paper cutter and used a bicycle chain to beat her. She was also left tied to a chair for days without food while her employers vacationed in Thailand, the court heard at the time.

Kartika Puspitasari in 2012. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

Kartika eventually fled from her employer’s home in October 2012 and sought help from the Indonesian consulate. She remained in Hong Kong for two years to assist with the police investigation, staying in a shelter provided by the consulate.

Barrister Percy Yue, who represented Kartika on Thursday, said the former domestic worker was seeking over HK$1,281,450 in damages.

The sum included amounts covering future medical expenses, loss of ability to work and physical and mental suffering caused.

Of that sum, HK$350,000 was expected from an insurance payout, while Kartika hoped to receive the remaining HK$935,000 from her former employers, Yue said.

District Court. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The court will deliver the ruling on December 15. Kartika, who is returning to Indonesia on Monday, will not appear in person.

Not isolated cases

Hong Kong is home to around 340,000 migrant domestic workers, most of them from Indonesia and the Philippines. Research has shown that domestic workers contribute significantly to the city’s economy, freeing up parents from childcare and other duties so they can enter the workforce.

Migrant worker activists have long campaigned for their rights, criticising policies such as a “live-in” rule that requires domestic workers to live in their employers’ homes.

Under Covid-19, activists say, workers’ conditions have worsened, with some employers barring them from leaving their homes on their one rest day a week.

Cases of physical abuse like Kartika’s have occasionally made their way to the spotlight, among them the torture endured by another Indonesian migrant worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, when she came to Hong Kong in 2013.

Eni Lestari (left) and Kartika Puspitasari (right). Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

In a press conference held by the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body (AMCB) on Thursday afternoon, Kartika – speaking publicly for the first time – said she still has nightmares and trembles when she sees people who look like her former employers.

Eni Lestari, an AMCB spokesperson, urged the government to do more to regulate the working conditions of domestic workers.

“The case of Kartika and Erwiana might be the extreme, but they are not isolated ones,” she said, adding that NGOs often receive cases of workers being denied rest days, food and their salaries.

Eni added that Kartika had sought damages in the Labour Tribunal in 2014 before returning to Indonesia. She was not paid monthly salaries in the two years she was working, Eni said, but she ultimately lost the case.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.