According to popular belief, slavery has been abolished long time ago. Even if it still exists, it only occurs in somewhere remote from us. However, the Global Slavery Index estimates that the population of modern slaves is around 35.8 million globally. Modern slavery refers to involuntary labours result from unethical practices such as deception and coercion. A latest human right research published last month by Seefar further suggests that the prevalence of practices associated with modern slavery among domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore is high.
Most Hongkongers are no stranger to the case of Erwiana. Nonetheless, many Hongkongers will also argue that this is merely a single incident, and exploitation of migrant workers is far from being a severe human right issue in Hong Kong.
However, the latest research result shows otherwise. Farsight, an international social enterprise, has conducted a 12-month research study across Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore, having interviewed more than 4000 women, citizens of the Philippines and Indonesia. The result is shocking. Exploitation and rights violations occur during all phases of labour migration.
The exploitation of migrant workers begins even before they start working, and the recruitment industry is accused of playing a key role in the exploitation of migrant workers. More than 70% of respondents reported that recruiters in their home country had confined them, confiscated their documents, or abused them verbally, physically or sexually. Many also reported to have received false information regarding the nature of the work, their remuneration and their working conditions.
Unethical employers and employment agencies in Hong Kong and Singapore also play critical roles in the exploitation process. The employment agencies in Hong Kong are notorious for charging an illegal placement fee, which goes far beyond the legal restriction of not exceeding 10% of their monthly salary.
Hence, many workers accumulate migration debts, some of them unknowingly. The total migrate debts are, on average, HKD$14000. With a monthly salary of around HKD$4000, it takes the domestic workers around 3-6 months to repay their debt for a 2 years contract. More than 30% of the interviewed domestic workers in Hong Kong reported that the migrate debt made them felt that they had no choice but to continue working for their employers.
Nearly half of the domestic workers in Hong Kong finance their debt through borrowing from the employment agency.
“The fact that most migrant domestic workers borrowed money from employment agencies in order to pay fees to these same agencies feeds into the argument that the situation of many migrants resembles debt-bondage, which is a form of modern slavery,” the report said.
What is more, domestic workers will be forced to leave Hong Kong within two weeks after their contracts are terminated. The debt bondage coupling with the two weeks requirement put the domestic workers into a very vulnerable situation, pressurizing them to keep on working even in difficult circumstances.
The findings seem to have disproved the common stereotype that a woman who chooses to migrate to work overseas are saving and accumulating a cushion of wealth. Rather, many of them are spending their prime of life in providing cheap labour to a foreign economy. They are only able to maintain a subsistence income.