Shirley  Dalisay is an abused domestic helper in Hong Kong. She is one of the many helpers that suffer from human rights abuse from their employers but never made the news. Bethune House Shelter,Hong Kong July 02 2014

The Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Prosperity

The city’s hundreds of thousands of domestic helpers have few protections and often endure brutal treatment.

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Hong Kong has a conflicted relationship with the foreign domestic workers who have become indispensable to the city’s functioning -- and who are now the subject of Filipina photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani’s latest series. More than 330,000 foreign domestic helpers, hailing from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, live in the semi-autonomous territory of nearly 7.5 million people, as of December 2014. They have a minimum wage -- but are only allowed to work on contracts that bar them from gaining full residency, no matter how long they stay. They cannot apply for visas for their spouses or children, since the conditions of employment do not allow them to have "dependents." Should a family member also obtain a Hong Kong work visa, they cannot live as a family, since by law, a foreign domestic helper must reside with her employer. And even if the rules require that the helpers have “suitable living accommodation with reasonable privacy,” in many cases the dismal size and condition of their actual quarters do not even cause a scandal anymore. Some sleep on mattresses on the floors of kitchen corridors, others in cupboards, some in the bathroom or with the children, others yet under makeshift canopies on tiny balconies.

Occasionally, though, a major jolt shakes the whole of Hong Kong out of its distracted stupor over the domestic help issue. It happened with the case of  24-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose employer, Law Wan-tung, was jailed for six years after beating her unconscious, punching her so hard that her teeth were fractured, depriving her of food, twisting metal tubes from the vacuum cleaner in her mouth, and other violent criminal acts. Law’s lawyer, Graham Harris SC, offered this defense of his client: her acts were not “one of the very worst of its kind [sic].” He recalled the case of Chan Mei-ying, a 51-year-old woman who was jailed for four months for scorching her helper’s hands with a hot iron, after she messed up a blouse. Doubtless on Law's mind was the case of Tai Chi-wai and his wife Au Yuk-shan, who are serving a lengthier jail term for attacking their domestic helper with bicycle chains, hot irons, paper cutters, shoes, and hangers.

Even so, women from Southeast Asia still stream into Hong Kong to work to earn enough money to send their children back home to school while they take care of someone else’s children. They do so to keep a roof above the heads of their parents and to look forward to a better future, built by their own hard-working hands. Bacani captures all of this -- the hard work, the joy, the resilience, the abuse -- and in so doing, she demands that we face a reality from which Hong Kong usually averts its eyes.

Ilaria Maria Sala

Above: The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge is a temporary shelter that serves distressed foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. It first opened its doors in 1986 and was established under the Mission for Migrant Workers, an outreach program of St. John’s Cathedral. According to the director of Bethune House, Edwina Antonio, since it commenced operation the shelter has served more than 20,000 migrant woman and their children.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.

Shirley  Dalisay is an abused domestic helper in Hong Kong. She is one of the many helpers that suffer from human rights abuse from their employers but never made the news. Bethune House Shelter,Hong Kong July 02 2014

31-year-old Shirley Dalisay, from the Philippines, suffered from burns on her back and arms when a pot of boiling hot soup fell on her after her employer “accidentally” put the soup above the family’s shoe rack where Shirley stored her shoes.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.

Quennie ,a domestic worker holding her two weeks old son,baby yuan. Yuan was borned 7 months premature in jail. Quenie was accused of stealing an earring and sentenced to jail while pregnant. Bethune House, Hong Kong January 07,2015

Queenie, a Filipina domestic worker, holds her seven-day-old baby, Yuan. When Queenie learned that she was pregnant, she asked her employer to allow her to return to the Philippines. The next day, the police arrived at her workplace and told her that her employer had accused her of stealing an earring. She was ultimately convicted of that crime and sentenced to prison. Queenie believes her employer wanted to avoid paying her maternity leave. Prison authorities brought her to a hospital to deliver her baby, who was born on January 1, 2015, and since she had served out her sentence she was released from custody a few days later. With nowhere to go, Queenie ended up at the Kowloon Union church, where a minister saw her crying. She was referred to Bethune House for shelter and aid.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.


Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, center, leaves the sentencing hearing for Law Wan-tung in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, February 27, 2015. In a lawsuit that received international attention, a judge sentenced Sulistyaningsih’s former employer, Law, to a six-year prison term on eight charges of assault. Found guilty of 18 out of 20 charges, Law was also fined H.K.$15,000, or U.S.$1,930, for failing to pay wages or grant her days off. Law physically, mentally, and psychologically abused Sulistyaningsih for months. She was beaten, underfed, and didn’t receive wages, and her health deteriorated so much so that she was eventually unable to walk. Her employer threatened to hurt her family in Indonesia if she told anyone about the abuse and took her to the airport to send her back to Indonesia. There, another Indonesian traveler noticed her and helped her.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.

Minarsi having a moment of laughter during mothers day when the residents talk about their children they left back home. She has a son in Indonesia. Bethune House,May 14 2015

Minarsih, an Indonesian domestic worker, laughs during a Mother’s Day celebration at the shelter. She has a six-year-old son in Indonesia. In 2014, Bethune House accommodated more than 600 migrant woman.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.


A portrait of Bethune Tellez hangs in the shelter. She was the daughter of one of the women who founded Bethune House. In 1986, at the age of nine, Bethune was hit and killed by a taxi cab, and the shelter is named in her memory. After the original shelter opened, the host church reclaimed part of the space it had used, so the shelter opened an additional second location.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.


Shirley calls her husband, Edgar Calwing, on a mobile device. Calwing is a migrant worker in Taiwan. In order to find work, both husband and wife left their native Philippines, leaving their four-year-old child in the care of their parents. It’s not unusual for both parents to leave their children with relatives back home so they can work abroad.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.

Victims of abuse comfort one another during one of the  sharing sessions at the shelter. A boost of morale is needed when most cases are being delayed and drag too long ;some of them just give up and go home. When a domestic worker file a case,she can not work in HK so she stop sending money for her family back home. Bethune House, Hong Kong October 11,2014

At weekly sharing sessions, residents update one another about their court cases and plans for the week. Most domestic worker abuse cases usually last a month, and often end when the domestic worker decides to drop her case and return to her home country. While the cases are pending, the women are not allowed to work, so they have to rely on charities for food, shelter, and emergency needs such as visas, medical expenses, bail money, and transportation to court.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.


Most of the workers in need of temporary shelter have had their contracts unjustly terminated, were sexually or physically abused, underpaid, forced to work under very harsh conditions, or victimized by illegal recruiters. Though many of the women who come to the shelter come as a last resort, the shelter becomes a kind of home. Most of the time, the residents outnumber the bed capacity of 22. The women prefer to sleep on the floor just to have a roof over their heads.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.


On a Sunday in September, 2014, survivors of domestic workers abuse celebrate the shelter’s anniversary, which is September 21. Sunday is a day off for domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Xyza Cruz Bacani via ChinaFile.

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