The top news story in Hong Kong right now is the torture of an Indonesian domestic helper by her employer. Erwiana’s plight only came to light when photographs appeared on social media after she was back in Indonesia where she is still being treated in hospital. There was public outrage, and the Hong Kong government acted swiftly. The police opened an investigation after one more helper came forward alleging abuse by the same employer (since then two more have come forward) and a team has been dispatched to Indonesia to record Erwina’s statement. Yesterday, the employer was arrested trying to flee Hong Kong, and will almost certainly pay for her crime.

While the Hong Kong government has been praised for taking action, there are structural problems in Hong Kong that allow such situations. Some time ago, I had a discussion on this blog with 30in 2005 in which she said the domestic helper industry was like modern day slavery. Erwina’s case seems to testify to that.

I still am not convinced that the entire industry is a form of slavery. I have seen enough decent employer-employee relationships for that. Hong Kong also has basic statutory protections, which are better than those of many other countries with large migrant domestic helper populations. Nevertheless, the case of Erwiana is an extreme example of the damage that can occur if more is not done to protect helpers.

According to me, the agencies are the crux of the problem. They extort money from the helpers, both in Hong Kong and by threatening their families back home. They also sometimes keep the helpers’ passports (which is illegal). Instead of supporting the helpers in case of a dispute, they tend to coerce the helpers into because they need the helpers to work to take a cut of their salary. Erwiana’s agency has come under a good deal of fire because it was revealed that she called them asking to quit and they did not support her. Agencies need to be monitored or at least blacklisted in such cases.

Then there are the consulates. The consulates need to advocate for their citizens and apprise them of their rights. Helpers in Hong Kong are protected by law but don’t know their rights. I have heard that one consulate in particular tells their helpers ‘to be good’. Ugh.

Then there is the housing problem in Hong Kong which forces people into very small places together. The helper’s contract asks the employer to state the living conditions he/she can provide to the helper. But I’ve heard of helpers being told to sleep in the toilet. The fact is that few people have the luxury of their own room in Hong Kong. But each person, including helpers, should have some space of their own (not the kitchen or toilet).

Hong Kong has a live-in rule, which means if you employ a helper you have to have her live in with you. This is because Hong Kong forsees a bigger problem of substandard housing settlements if migrant workers live outside. Few employers could afford to pay for decent housing elsewhere.

However, this has resulted in both squeezing the helpers into already cramped houses, plus condemning them to 24/7 work, plus opening them up to torture of the kind Erwiana faced. I kept wondering how no one spotted Erwina’s injuries, including other helpers in the area. But V pointed out she might have never been allowed to leave the house. If Erwiana had been living outside, she would have friends who would have noticed her condition or her absence if she failed to return home.

I think the live-in rule should be scrapped. While they may be few, there are people who are willing to pay for decent accommodation for their helpers outside. In fact, there are people who do it. And they are forced to break the law in order to provide their helpers with a better living arrangement. Even we were open to the idea of our helpers living outside, especially when we got a second one, but when we proposed this they both expressed the desire to live with us. Maybe they felt it would be cheaper as they have access to a lot of resources like food, unlimited water supply, heaters etc at our home and are no disputes about transportation. Anyway, since we are not home all day, they have the run of the house. But I can see the advantages of living outside as well.

The Labour minister said that scrapping the live-in rule would pit foreign domestic helpers against local ones. I don’t see how this is the case – foreign helpers exist because there is a shortage of locals who want to do this job regardless of where they live, unless the minister means that the point of helpers living with their employers is for them to work 24/7, which would then be in contravention of any normal labour law. I don’t think live-out should be mandatory but at least we could start with a choice.

Helpers’ organisations have also condemned the mere two weeks helpers are given to find a new job if they quit their old one. Some have pointed out that this is in contravention to an international treaty on the rights of migrant workers. If this wasn’t bad enough, immigration began denying visas to helpers suspected of job-hopping. Huh? First of all, how many helpers jump jobs? And if they do, so what? Shouldn’t we all have the freedom to quit and try again if we are unhappy with an employer. In my opinion, there are more helpers trapped in jobs out of fear than jumping jobs to earn airfare and the 1-month compensation. Even if the job-hopping scam is true and rampant, it is the agencies who seek to gain and should be scrutinised. Was even one agency ever blacklisted over this?

Employers definitely need to rethink their attitudes too. The employer-helper relationship is a power imbalanced one, and one has to constantly check oneself to ensure one is being fair. Historically, people doing domestic work were not respected and in this case they are from a different race. I often here locals saying they prefer Indonesian helpers because the Filipino ones are ‘too smart’ and their friends ‘spoil them’. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the two terrible abuse cases that came to light recently were both Indonesian helpers. Personally, I prefer smart helpers, even if it means they stand up to me, because I need someone who can think independently when watching my kids.

Finally, there are those that say that Hong Kong should rid itself of helpers. People say Hong people should take care of their own children. I’m not convinced of this. And we all know which gender will end up doing the childcare. In Hong Kong, where more women refuse traditional gender roles, it’s possible that the already low birth rate will dip even lower . Moreover, Hong Kong which has an aging population is facing a similar problem at the other end. The fact is that capitalism hasn’t really thought out a solution to this, and Hong Kong is not going to adopt the Swedish route in a hurry.

In principle, I see no problem with employing someone to help out with childcare. However, when a migrant population is employed for this, the government must make sure that population, which is more vulnerable, is well protected.