Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Hong Kong police launched an investigation into the alleged torture of an Indonesian domestic helper during her nine months of employment with a family in the former British crown colony.
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23 (pictured before and after the violence), is currently in a hospital in Central Java. Her body is covered in cuts, burns and bruises, which she claims were caused by her former employer. She is said to be improving but is still confined to bed.
She returned to Indonesia on 10 January, according to the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers, after her employer gave her HK$ 100 (US$ 12) and a t-shirt and asked her not to speak with anyone before boarding the plane.
A police spokeswoman said the case was not turned over to an investigation officer right away because "The helper's employment agency made a report to police on January 12 but [. . .] did not provide evidence to confirm where her injuries came from. We can just hope to get more details."
The police statement angered human rights activists and pro-democracy politicians. "If a person is killed and no one reports the murder, I wouldn't think police would want to wait for someone to turn up to provide evidence before starting an investigation," said Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, of the Labour Party.
Still, this case has put the plight of foreign workers in Hong Kong back in the spotlight. Most of them come from the Philippines and Indonesia to work mostly as domestic helpers or janitors, their life burdened by low wages, housing difficulties, inability to obtain citizenship and veiled racism.
Despite having laws and regulations, Hong Kong authorities often appear to ignore deliberately the terrible situation.
In Sulistyaningsih's case, the physical violence was compounded by other elements of discrimination, such as the alleged HK$ 18,000 fees (US$ 2.300) she was required to pay to her employment agency even though Hong Kong law stipulates that they can charge helpers no more than HK$ 401.
Such a situation is not unusual. In some cases, agencies charge as much as HK$ 21,000, said Robert Godden, Asia-Pacific Campaign Coordinator at Amnesty International.
Some go so far as to withhold helpers' passports, employment contracts and bank cards until their debt is paid back.
For Leo Tang Kin-wa, organising secretary at the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Sulistyaningsih was probably scared to file a report with police because of Hong Kong's mandatory "live-in" policy for domestic helpers.
"Why did this case just come to public attention after the helper returned to Indonesia? It is because Hong Kong has failed to provide a safe environment for workers," he said.
The Indonesian woman "was forced to live with her employers, and there were no public-funded crisis shelters for helpers that she could have escaped to. It is very hard for helpers in Hong Kong to seek help."