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Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 12 News List

Maids in Asia: Big contribution but small return

Stories of maid abuse come out regularly in Taiwan's press, but the phenomenon is prevalent across Asia. Some countries are taking measures


Loretta works at least 15 hours a day, six days a week. She lives with her employer, sleeping on a sofa in the bedroom of his six-year-old son.

She has no privacy, eats the leftovers from the meals she cooks for her employer and has just one day off a week.

In the West, her working conditions would be deemed almost slave labor. But in Hong Kong and other Asian countries, they are not unusual for a maid.

"I have lots of friends who live like this," said the 38-year-old Filipina who has worked as a maid in Hong Kong for 12 years.

"For some things are better. For others it is worse. We put up with it because there is always someone else waiting to step in and work for less," she said.

Loretta's situation echoes throughout the region among thousands of women who leave their countries to work as maids in more affluent neighboring countries.

For many, these jobs bring a regular wage that makes a contribution back home, but at a cost. Horror stories of abuse -- including rape, beatings, burning with irons and cases of exploitation and discrimination -- appear in the Asian press with alarming regularity.

In Singapore's worst case in 2002, a man who beat his Indonesian maid to death was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Earlier this month in Taiwan, a husband and wife were jailed for treating their Indonesian maid like a dog, making her eat leftovers and drink water from the toilet.

The Taiwanese court handed out a stiff penalty of 10 years to the husband to show that it would not tolerate such abuse, but to many the case highlighted how deep and strong the tide of discrimination still runs through Asia against foreign maids.

Hong Kong has more than 220,000 foreign maids -- or domestic helpers. In Thailand there is an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers, of whom 532,452 are legal. In Taiwan, the figure is around 160,000, while Malaysia has about 500,000 foreign maids.

They come from all over Asia in search of monthly wages ranging from US$100 to US$450 -- mostly from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, but also from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Mongolia.

Dolores Balladares, chairperson of United Filipinos in Hong Kong, says these workers make a valid contribution to the society and economy of their employing country but get little recognition or help in return.

In Hong Kong, for example, a two-week rule introduced in 1987 was targeted at only foreign maids, giving them just two weeks to find a new position if they lose their job before being sent back to their home countries -- a condition that favored employers, not the workers, Balladares says.

In 2003, the government began imposing a levy of HK$400 (US$52) on anyone who hires a foreign maid. Coming at a time when the minimum wage for foreign maids was slashed by the same amount, it has been criticized as an indirect tax and racial discrimination on one of the poorest working sectors of the former British colony.

Like many in Hong Kong, Balladares had pinned her hopes on a long overdue Race Discrimination Bill, which is still under discussion, only to be disappointed in its failure to adequately address problems faced by foreign maids.

In Thailand, a policy of registering foreign maids in an attempt to better regulate the flow and deflect some international criticisms has gone some way to help the conditions maids face. But the registration process is slow and costly, leading many to ignore it and therefore making them more vulnerable to abuse.

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