Shiela Tebia Bonifacio was 23 years old when she travelled to Hong Kong from the Philippines to take up a job as a domestic worker. What she hoped would be an opportunity to improve her life soon turned into a nightmare.
Her “non-stop” shifts would begin at 5am, and at night, she was expected to sleep on the floor. The son of one of the families she worked with subjected her to sexual abuse. She told Al Jazeera, she felt “afraid and humiliated.”
But fifteen years on, Bonifacio is one of the activists fighting tirelessly to improve conditions for other domestic workers in Hong Kong.
The survivor-led movement is gaining ground
Bonifacio is now chairperson of an alliance of Filipina women migrant organizations, Gabriela Hong Kong. Her group helps inform women of their rights and offers services like counselling and blood pressure checks.
Thanks to their campaigns, they have achieved meaningful change for domestic workers, including the 2012 ban on forcing workers to clean windows after several fell to their deaths.
In 2018, they were also instrumental in domestic workers winning the right to attend Labour Tribunals remotely, meaning they could pursue claims even after leaving Hong Kong.
And the movement is growing. More and more women are now taking their employers to court for abuse and exploitation that often amount to modern slavery.
The road ahead
But the fight is far from over. The scale of abuse is massive and legal protections are still weak. Research conducted by the Justice Centre in 2016 found that 66% of domestic workers in Hong Kong were experiencing exploitation and around 1 in 6 were being subjected to forced labor.
Hong Kong labor laws discriminate against the 340,000 migrant domestic workers living there, leaving them vulnerable to modern slavery.
The so-called “two-week” rule, for example, stipulates that domestic workers must leave the city within two weeks if they lose their job. They are also excluded from welfare benefits should they become unemployed. As a result, many workers stay with abusive employers to avoid deportation.
“Live-in” laws mean they must live with their employers, which puts them at greater risk of being forced to overwork, of becoming isolated and living in indecent conditions. They are allowed just one day off per week.
Although many earn illegally low salaries, domestic workers are entitled to a minimum wage of 4,730 Hong Kong dollars ($603) a month. This is less than half the minimum wage for all other workers, which is 40 Hong Kong dollars ($5.10) an hour.
Workers are currently fighting for their right to stop their two-year contracts early to switch employers after a public consultation was launched in March over proposals to only allow a change of employer in “exceptional circumstances”. This would result in more modern slavery victims being forced to stay with their abusers.
Join the fight
Legislators and government bodies around the world must take urgent action to end the discrimination against migrant domestic workers and guarantee their rights and safety from exploitation.
The Freedom United community is calling on all governments to ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention 189. This commitment is essential if domestic workers are to receive the same treatment and protection from exploitation as other workers.
Join us today! Sign the petition.