Hong Kong | Domestic worker challenges live-in rule in landmark case

In this January 2014 file photo, a maid is holding a picture of migrant Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was tortured by her employer in Hong Kong

A Hong Kong domestic worker is challenging the city’s infamous ‘live-in’ rule and calling for the government not to dictate where such workers should live and sleep.

The live-in rule, which is in force in Hong Kong but not in Macau, stipulates that imported domestic workers are required to live with their employers. It has been in force since 2003, implemented through standard employment contracts connected with visa applications. Violators of the rule may face up to 14 years in prison and a HKD150,000 fine.

Critics have repeatedly called for its abolition as they say the law opens domestic workers to potential abuse, including being overworked and having their personal identity documents illegally confiscated.

One Philippine domestic worker, Nancy Almorin, is now calling for employers to be given the choice to agree to domestic workers living outside of their premises.

The landmark case could liberate some 200,000 domestic workers in the city from being required to live with their employers.

Lawyers for Almorin argue that the current live-in rule may be unconstitutional as it endangers the rights of such workers by making them more vulnerable to abuse.

According to the South China Morning Post, one of Almorin’s lawyers, Paul Shieh, is claiming that the immigration department’s authority does not extend to decisions over where domestic workers should be permitted to reside. He said that if such authorities indeed lack this power, they should not be allowed to circumvent the requirement by making employment contracts include a live-in clause.

“Usually domestic workers live-in with their employers in Hong Kong, but this makes them vulnerable to abuse and working [overly] long hours each day,” said Emerlina de Lina of Migrante Macau, a local domestic workers’ association. “For this reason, they want [to be able] to live out.”

Last year, the Global Slavery Index listed Hong Kong as one of the worst places in the world at taking action against modern slavery. The condemnation followed other similar reports by entities such as the International Labour Organization, in claiming that domestic workers are at risk of exploitation, partly due to the live-in requirement.

Macau has no equivalent rule and de Lina believes that this is one reason that the MSAR might be a more attractive destination for overseas domestic workers looking for this type of employment. Macau also offers more diverse work opportunities, such as in the city’s hotels and restaurants, which might appeal to younger overseas workers.

However, there are also factors in Macau that act as a disincentive, de Lina told the Times. “There are no standard contracts in Macau so [domestic workers] can be paid whatever the employer wants,” she noted, and it is indeed often difficult for such workers to negotiate their wage.

Macau was not named in the 2016 Global Slavery Index, but representatives of overseas domestic worker associations in Macau highlighted at the time that it was not much better than its neighboring SAR. The representatives cited a lack of standard employment contracts, no minimum wage, and overly long working hours as the main reasons.

Bus fare proposal ‘unfair and discriminatory’

Migrante Macau chairperson Emerlina de Lina has described a new policy proposal to increase bus fares for non-residents as “unfair and discriminatory.”

The government says that the proposed policy is a form of “positive discrimination” to give Macau ID holders greater advantages, and to reduce public subsidies spent on non-residents.

“It is so unfair and discriminatory to increase the bus fare for the lowest income workers,” said de Lina yesterday.

“We are opposed to the increase because a lot of people will be affected.”

As many as 180,000 people could be impacted by the proposal, or more than a quarter of Macau’s population.

De Lina said that the bus is by far the most popular form of transport utilized by domestic workers in the city. “In Hong Kong, there are other forms of transport, but in Macau there is only the bus – and the taxis, [which] are too expensive.”

Migrante Macau will now consult with other associations representing overseas workers living in the city in a meeting planned for next week. De Lina also raised the idea of a protest in the near future should the proposal appear to be going ahead.

During a TDM Forum debate yesterday, representatives of the three bus companies clarified that any extra revenue generated by the price hike would go to the government.

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