New Hong Kong Maid Deal Raises Old Concerns Over Abuse

Employment agencies in Hong Kong are already raising doubts about the likely success of a pilot program that could see hundreds of Cambodians start arriving later this year to work as maids, only a day after a deal creating the program was signed, according to media reports.

A failed 2014 program sending maids between Hong Kong and Burma also has some worried that the deal with Cambodia could end the same way.

Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng was in Hong Kong on Monday to sign off on the agreement with Stephen Sui, the region’s labor and welfare secretary.

The ministry was eager to tout Hong Kong’s “very active” protection of foreign domestic workers. But it was short on specifics and has ignored requests for details of the plan, including how many Cambodians it hopes to send over during the pilot’s five-year run and when it would begin. The ministry also ignored questions about what steps it was taking to avoid the debacle of Cambodia’s 2013 pilot program with Singapore, from where maids returned with stories of forced overtime, shorted salaries and sexual abuse.

Hong Kong’s Welfare and Labor Bureau did not reply to a request for comment about the new deal.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the first 1,000 Cambodians were expected to arrive in September or October after three months of training in Cambodia.

On Tuesday, the newspaper cited the chairwoman of Hong Kong’s Employers of Domestic Helpers Association, Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, who raised significant doubts about the chances of teaching the Cambodians enough Cantonese to make the program a success.

“Many helpers claim they know Cantonese and English, but they actually do not. It is a serious problem if the employers cannot communicate with the helper. I wonder how three months of training can help,” she is quoted saying. “I do not want to see the experience of bringing [Burmese] helpers to Hong Kong repeated.”

The newspaper also cited Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, managing director of Hong Kong’s Technic Employment Service Center, echoing Ms. Shan-yee’s concerns.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told The Cambodia Daily on Tuesday that the Burmese maids arrived in Hong Kong already thousands of dollars in debt, often owed to the agencies that sent them.

The Burmese agencies, he said, failed to teach the maids the English and Cantonese they needed to communicate with their employers effectively, while the Burmese government fell short in handling complaints of abuse. Mounting reports of Hong Kong employers abusing their maids also discouraged Burmese women from taking up the program, and the Burmese government finally imposed a ban on sending them, aborting the pilot early.

Mr. Robertson said he feared the Cambodians would simply be taking the place of the Burmese, with few signs that either Cambodia or Hong Kong have taken the necessary steps to avoid a repeat.

“Put simply, the Cambodians going to Hong Kong will be the new Burmese—they will be the newest, least protected, least linguistically capable and most vulnerable group of maids on the market,” he said.

“There’s no indication that the Cambodian government has invested the time or the political will to ensure protection systems will be robust enough to receive complaints, investigate, and protect the women who take these jobs. This is very, very worrisome because unlike Burma, the Cambodian government has shown itself to be more than happy to ignore problems until they reach a critical stage, as they did with the abuses against Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia.”

Cambodia banned sending maids to Malaysia in 2011 after growing reports that its nationals were being abused there. The two countries patched things up with a new agreement in 2015, but they have yet to work out the details.

Moeun Tola, director of the Cambodian labor rights group Central, said Cambodia’s recruitment agencies had a troubling history of putting their own recruits in debt bondage before they leave, even while failing to give them the proper pre-departure training, including on matters of culture and in language.

He was skeptical that three months would be enough time to teach the maids heading to Hong Kong adequate Cantonese, and also worried about a repeat of experiences of Burmese domestic workers.

“If they cannot communicate, they face very high risk,” he said. “They end up with domestic violence.”

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