When a Sri Lankan maid complained that she had been abandoned inside a wealthy Hong Kong investment banker's home with no food, money or keys while her employer went on holiday, the case came as no surprise to Jim Rice.
In his opinion, the case of Saroja Jayasekara, 36, who claimed early this month that she ended up surviving on food handouts from neighbors and charities, typifies a widespread but hidden problem of maid abuse in the territory.
More than 300,000 women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, work as live-in maids for Hong Kong families, and Rice, a philosophy lecturer at the city's Lingnan University, said many are secretly abused or underpaid.
Because they know too little about the law, employers almost always get away with such abuses, said Rice, who has now written a low-cost legal guidebook to try to help downtrodden maids in the city of 6.8 million stand up for their rights.
Jayasekara's case appears strikingly similar to one that Rice himself came across some years ago and first persuaded him that the city's army of domestic helpers were in need of help themselves.
Locked in the house
"Near where I lived, there was an Indonesian woman who was locked up in her employer's house alone for a month while she went away on holiday," Rice recalled.
"She had to call friends for help just to get food," he said. "They were bringing it to her and stuffing it through the gate. She was literally locked in the house. If there had been a fire, she wouldn't have been able to get out."
Rice offered to go for help, but the maid was horrified when he suggested publicizing her case.
"She begged me, `Please don't make any trouble,'" he said, "so I didn't go to the police or the press. I observed her wishes, and eventually she got a new employer and moved. Nothing ever came of it."
"These things happen and the employee is so frightened of getting into trouble because she knows the cards are stacked against her in terms of the labor procedures," he said.
Foreign maids in Hong Kong are guaranteed a minimum monthly wage of around US$440, far more than their counterparts in Singapore, and Hong Kong has been praised by the New York-based Human Rights Watch for protecting domestic helpers' rights.
Nevertheless, Rice, who has worked with help groups providing aid to maids involved in disputes with their employers, argued that they are very much second-class citizens in legal terms.
If maids are dismissed, their visas are revoked immediately, and they must leave the territory within two weeks, meaning that complaints of abuse or wrongful dismissal are rarely heard.
"Once a helper is dismissed, she has no right to be here," Rice said. "I know of cases where people have sacked their maids, packed up their suitcases, sent them to the airport, and they are on their way to Manila within a few hours of being dismissed, and they get away with that."
"I am trying to inform workers they have other options, and I think they need to hear this. It can help them enormously in terms of dealing ... with immigration officers or the police," he said.
Most maids are unaware of their right to silence if they are reported for working illegally, a widespread phenomenon in the territory and encouraged in many cases by employers who take on part-time maids.
"Some individuals have been questioned about illegal employment," Rice said, "and they have burst into tears and told all and ended up with an eight-month sentence."