Wednesday, December 17, 2014

HONG KONG:::Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong should not have to suffer abuse in silence

This Thursday is International Migrants Day - an opportune moment for us to celebrate the positive role played around the world by different types of migrants. In Hong Kong, the most visible example of this is the very valuable contributions made by foreign domestic workers, particularly in alleviating family care responsibilities and enabling many to, in turn, return to their careers.
Despite this important role, many foreign domestic workers face significant barriers and injustice in their daily life. Late last month, the Equal Opportunities Commission released the findings of the first questionnaire survey for foreign domestic workers on the sexual harassment and discrimination they face at work. The results are sobering: Of the nearly 1,000 workers surveyed, 6.5 per cent said they had been sexually harassed at the workplace or at a work-related event in the preceding 12 months. According to the Immigration Department, there are currently over 330,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Extrapolating from these figures means that tens of thousands of foreign domestic workers may be at risk of sexual harassment each year.

The survey findings confirm that foreign domestic workers are among the most vulnerable groups in our society to potential mistreatment. Their situation is exacerbated by a number of factors. First, the policy requiring workers to live with their employer, sometimes in accommodation without privacy, means that those who face harassment are put at high risk of prolonged abuse. According to the commission's survey, employers and others residing in the household were the most common perpetrators of sexual harassment, together making up 82 per cent of the alleged harassers.
We have also been told that the "two-week rule" deters victims from stepping forward, as they worry that they would then be dismissed and forced to find a new employer, or leave Hong Kong, within two weeks. Some may be new arrivals who are not sufficiently aware of their protection under Hong Kong's laws.
Not surprisingly, almost one in four said they did not take action after facing sexual harassment, with the most common reason being fear of losing their job. Many may still be suffering in silence.
Sexual harassment is already an issue that disproportionately affects women and is a manifestation of a power imbalance between men and women. Sexual harassment against foreign domestic workers brings to the fore the intersection between issues of gender, socio-economic status and race. Such acts reflect how far we must still go to foster an inclusive society for all.
In fact, foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong face much discrimination beyond sexual harassment. According to the commission's survey, 12 per cent of respondents have faced some form of discrimination or harassment over the past year, with over half pointing to racial harassment. This demonstrates the need for greater public education to eliminate stereotypes and biases, including about racial origin.
The commission has also been informed that foreign domestic workers frequently face pregnancy discrimination, including being compelled to sign a contract stating they would not become pregnant during home leave. Under the existing law, such a case would not be protected. This is one reason why the commission has proposed, as part of our review of the anti-discrimination ordinances, that the Sex Discrimination Ordinance should also provide protection against potential pregnancy.
Everyone has a right to be safe and free from harassment in their work environment. As a modern, cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong must do better to safeguard the rights of all, including foreign domestic workers, and ensure they can also enjoy fair treatment. All of us - from employers to employees' groups, from employment agencies to the consulates-general and the government - must work together towards this aim.
Dr York Chow Yat-ngok is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission

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