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Hong Kong protesters demand democracy, but not for their domestic workers

Housekeepers, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, say Hong Kong needs to recognize them as residents too

Even if the tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong manage to wrest from Beijing the right to open elections, an entire class of workers will remain barred from the polls, still unable to address the widespread wage theft and physical abuse they face.

Hong Kong’s foreign domestic workers — unlike international workers from any other field — are not eligible for Hong Kong permanent residency and therefore can't vote. Disenfranchised from even the city's current limited democracy, they can't push politicians to recognize their plight.

Many Hong Kong domestic workers support the demonstrations demanding Hong Kongers nominate their own candidates, but say the city's constitutional promise of "universal suffrage" should include them as well.

“We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history,” said 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, who also advocates for domestic worker rights with United Filipinos in Hong Kong.

“It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

There are almost 321,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, a region of about 7 million, according to government statistics, and 97 percent come from Indonesia and the Philippines. A workforce consisting almost entirely of women, domestic staff are excluded from the law that allows people to obtain Hong Kong permanent residency after living in the region for seven years.

Supporters of the domestic worker exception have been accused of discrimination, but Joseph Law Kwan-din, director of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers Association, has said its not out of prejudice that many in Hong Kong want to keep their housekeepers in the region temporarily.  

"We appreciate foreign helpers' contribution, but conditions of service and salary should be the only rewards instead of the right of abode to become a permanent resident," he told local newspaper The Standard.

"Ordinary residents" who stay in Hong Kong for seven years — and are not excluded from the residency law — can vote for the Legislative Council representatives that advocate for the issues that face them.

That’s not the case for domestic workers.

“That’s why many of the political parties aren’t taking care of the problems faced by domestic workers. They know there are no migrant workers voting for them,” said Sringatin, a 34-year-old Indonesian domestic worker who also runs an advocacy organization, the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union.

In 2010, Filipino domestic helpers Evangeline Vallejos and Daniel Domingo filed a lawsuit to be considered "ordinary citizens," and the judge ruled that preventing them from seeking permanent residency would be a breach of Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution. But the decision was overturned, and judges refused to take the case up again on appeal in 2013. 

The effects of Hong Kong's selective residency laws and electoral rights have proved detrimental to domestic workers’ fight for better representation, and protection.

Earlier this year, employers allegedly pummeled Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, with a number of household objects, including a broom, leaving her bloody and bruised from head to toe.

HK Helpers, a domestic worker advocacy group, decried the “inaction from authorities,” saying that police said there wasn’t enough evidence to detain the employer, even as images of an injured Sulistyaningsih circulated around the Internet.

The story galvanized the public, briefly, but legislators failed to deliver any substantive response to concerns for domestic worker rights.

A 2012 survey from the Mission for Migrant Workers found that 18 percent of Hong Kong's migrant domestic workers had been physically abused.

Before arriving in Hong Kong, many Indonesian domestic workers are locked in “training centers” for as long as a year after accepting contracts with professional headhunters. Indonesian Employment agencies, both in Hong Kong and Indonesia, often demand exorbitant fees for their services that the domestic workers are expected to pay off with their first few months of salary, which can often be lower than the minimum wage ruled by Hong Kong. Domestic workers who are fired by their employers must return to their home countries within two weeks. Advocates say that this is too little time to seek legal recourse for wrongful termination and other injuries. 

“They aren’t considered to be the same caliber as individuals from elsewhere,” said Meredith McBridge, an advocate HK Helpers. Without the right to vote, she said, these long-term Hong Kong residents are left with “no way to hold legislators accountable for their policies.”

Hong Kong Immigration Department officials did not indicate any imminent revisions of its policies on domestic workers.

“In Hong Kong, under what kind of circumstances people are eligible for permanent residency status has been clearly denoted in our law,” said the Immigration Department’s Anthia Ku, adding “I don’t know why.”

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council would not answer interview requests from Al Jazeera at time of publication.

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