By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One in six migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong is a victim of forced labor and a significant proportion have been trafficked, rights campaigners said on Tuesday as they called for stronger protections for the city's maids.
Research by the Justice Centre Hong Kong suggests more than 80 percent of the territory's 336,600 domestic workers are exploited, with some working 20 hours a day.
"Hong Kong must come clean; the government can no longer afford to simply sweep these problems under the carpet," the center said in a report.
The treatment faced by the city's domestic helpers made international headlines last year when a Hong Kong mother was sentenced to six years in prison for repeatedly abusing and assaulting her maids.
Another Hong Kong couple was jailed in 2013 for torturing their maid, who said they once dressed her in a nappy and tied her to a chair while they went on holiday.
The Justice Centre said the Hong Kong government often treated such cases as isolated incidents, but campaigners believe they are symptomatic of widespread exploitation.
A third of Hong Kong households with children employs a maid. The majority are from the Philippines and Indonesia.
The study found they work an average of over 70 hours a week, yet only a fraction reported receiving above the minimum monthly wage, which recently rose to HK$4,210 ($543).
The study surveyed more than 1,000 domestic workers from eight countries about their recruitment, pay, work conditions and treatment.
Extrapolating the results suggests over 50,000 migrant domestic workers may be in forced labor, of whom 14 percent may have been trafficked, according to the report "Coming Clean".
The authors said contrary to what many people think, forced labor and trafficking "don't always take place in shackles and in the shadows".
They highlighted the case of Indah, an Indonesian maid who was hired legally and receives the minimum wage, but is still a victim of forced labor.
Indah, who has had her passport confiscated, works 20 hours a day. Her employer often wakes her at night to work and forces her to work for other people and on her day off.
"Migrant domestic workers are uniquely vulnerable to forced labor because the nature of their occupation can blur work-life boundaries and isolate them behind closed doors," the report said.
The Justice Centre urged the government to create clear guidelines on working hours and abolish the requirement for maids to "live in", which it said increased the risk of exploitation.
A rule requiring migrant workers to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of their contract ending should also be scrapped as this leaves them scared to report abuse, the center added.
Like Indah, almost all those in forced labor had attained at least secondary school education and more than a quarter had attended college or university.
Over a third of all domestic workers surveyed were not given a full day off as required by law, over half reported receiving less than the minimum food allowance and nearly a third did not feel free to quit.
The center also called for tougher action on unscrupulous employment agencies that overcharge migrant workers, often leaving them in debt.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)