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Hong Kong Employer Found Guilty of Torturing, Beating, and Starving Housekeeper

Human rights campaigners say the horrific case shines a spotlight on the widespread abuse and exploitation of domestic workers in Hong Kong.

by Jessica Lukjanow
Feb 10 2015, 1:50pm

The victim, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih (center), walks away from court with her supporters. Photo by Kin Cheung/AP

A Hong Kong court has found the former employer of an Indonesian domestic helper guilty of 18 charges of torturing, brutally assaulting, and starving the worker. The case is being described as a warning to authorities to stop the rampant exploitation and abuse of housekeepers, as well as a reflection on governmental failure in dealing with the problem.

The 44-year-old mother-of-two, Law Wan-tung, was arrested in January 2014 after her former maid, 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, accused her of physically beating and mistreating her for several months, as well as failing to pay her any wages for her services.

Judge Amanda Woodcock today ruled that the employer had systematically tortured her maid through physical and psychological violence. Woodcock said that some of Law's assaults included forcing a vacuum cleaner tube into Sulistyaningsih's mouth, punching her so hard that her incisor teeth fractured, stripping her naked and making her stand while soaking wet in front of a fan in the middle of winter, and threatening to kill her and her family. Other charges included withholding wages.

Law had pleaded not guilty to the 20 counts she was charged with. The two remaining charges, for which she was found not guilty, concerned allegations relating to two previous maids. Law did plead guilty to a lesser charge of failing to buy insurance.

The most serious of the charges carries a maximum sentence of lifetime in prison and Law is due to be sentenced on February 27.

'Hong Kong Silenced': Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) said in a statement that the verdict was a "wake up call" for authorities to stop the "widespread exploitation" of tens of thousands of women.

"The guilty verdict is a damning indictment of the government's failure to reform the system that traps women in a cycle of abuse and exploitation," added Norma Kang Muico, Asia-Pacific migrant rights researcher at AI.

The case lead to thousands protesting across Hong Kong, with human and workers' rights groups demanding the government reform current laws surrounding the more than 300,000 foreign maids residing in the city. The groups have demanded the capping of work hours, the removal of illegal fees charged to workers by employment agencies, and processes to make it easier to report abuse.

During Law's long and highly publicized trial, Hong Kong police claimed the employer forced her maid to wear a diaper, beat her daily, and didn't pay her any wages before sending her back to Indonesia when she could no longer walk properly.

'One side of me feels sad because I am a victim of abuse. But the other side, I am happy because my case was exposed, getting attention from the public.'

"[Law] asked me to put on six layers of clothes and two pairs of pants," Sulistyaningsih told the court. " She also asked me to wear Pampers because I was unable to go to the toilet because I was very weak. She put make up on me so I don't look like someone who'd just been tortured."

Sulistyaningsih reportedly required immediate hospitalization after returning from Hong Kong, and had obvious laceration scarring on her face, hands, and legs.

During the trial, Law's defense argued that the maids had exaggerated and made up information, and that if the abuse had been as bad they claimed they would have run away.

Sulistyaningsih arrived in Hong Kong on May 27, 2013, and began working for Law two days later. She told the court the abuse started after she tried to leave when she didn't receive her first month's wage.

The worker was reportedly only provided with daily rations of bread, rice, and 15 fl oz (450ml) of water. When she attempted to take some of the family's food, she said Law punched her in the mouth so hard she broke her teeth.

Yet AI maintains that stories like these are strikingly common and often ignored by authorities. "The Hong Kong authorities can no longer bury their heads in the sand and dismiss horrific abuses as isolated incidents. Concrete action to end laws and regulations that foster such horrific abuse is long overdue," said Kang Muico.

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AI states that around half of Hong Kong's migrant domestic workers are from Indonesia and nearly all are women. While many of the migrants are lured to the city with the promise of well-paid employment, according to the group, "the reality for the women could not be more different, with non-payment of wages, exploitative hours with no rest days, restrictions on freedom of movement, confiscation of identity documents, physical and sexual violence, and lack of food."

After the verdict, Sulistyaningsih urged the government to take domestic workers rights more seriously. "I was glad that my case could reveal other cases that the government hadn't paid attention to," she said. 

"I really hope that the governments will recognize domestic workers not only in words, but in action. One side of me feels sad because I am a victim of abuse. But the other side, I am happy because my case was exposed, getting attention from the public."

After her ordeal Sulistyaningsih was selected by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of 2014 and she has given several talks about her experiences and the issues surrounding migrant workers in the region. 

Follow Jessica Lukjanow on Twitter: @jlukjanow