Shelter for abused FDWs faces bankruptcy and closure in a month

25/04/2018 - 6:48am


English version translated by Norma Wong 王凱琳
Chinese version / 中文版本:

After you have been laid off or you have resigned from your job, what would you do? You may immediately start looking for a new one, or perhaps you would want to take a short break before that – however, this is not an option for foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

Because FDWs are required to live with their employers, leaving their jobs means they have nowhere to stay. Many of them do not have much savings: they usually send most of their HKD4000 salary home, leaving only a little for themselves to spend on food and transportation. They cannot afford to stay in a cheap hotel for more than two weeks. Their agencies are unlikely to help because they care mostly about business. Even in the critical case of Erwiana, her agency would rather send her back to her abusive employer than to cause any trouble on their side. 

During this time, where would they go? Who support those who need to stay in Hong Kong to seek justice in court after mistreatment? 

Established 32 years ago to offer shelter for those sleeping on the street after contract termination
As the backup plan of hundreds of thousands of FDWs in Hong Kong for over three decades, this small shelter, Bethune House, is entirely run by private funding with no public subsidies at all. Some employers’ organizations, and political parties such as the like of Liberal Party, often portrait foreign workers organizations as incredibly high in capacity and rich in resources. It cannot be further from the truth. In fact, Bethune House is currently facing a stark financial crisis as one of their donors decided to shift its focus to other target groups. WKNews has interviewed a resident of the house, Hana (fake name), an Indonesian FDWs, and Edwina, a staff member, to find out the raisons d’être of this house, and what it means to FDWs. 

Since the 1970s, Hong Kong has imported large numbers of FDWs, mostly from the Philippines. In 1981, St. John Cathedral established the Mission for Filipino Migrant Workers to assist them through problems in Hong Kong. As FDWs started to be imported from more countries, the organization changed its name to Mission for Migrant Workers, in order include all nationalities of FDWs into their scope of work. 

Mission for Migrant Workers soon discovered that FDWs who have had their contract terminated often had nowhere to stay but to sleep under staircases in buildings, or outside of churches or cathedrals. They needed a shelter. According to Edwina, at that time, the wife of a priest felt very strongly about this and persuaded her church to alter some of its rooms into a shelter. This is the beginning of Bethune House in September, 1986. Later, as the shelter saw increasing demands, the staff at Mission for Migrant Workers no longer had enough capacity to operate it. It then established its own executive committee, and became an independent entity. Since then the two organizations have been working closely together. 
What else does a shelter offer apart from a roof above one’s head? 

FDWs return to the house that treats them violently because they could not escape

If not for Mission for Migrant Workers and Bethune House, Hana might still be staying with her abusive employer. 
Hana has been working in Hong Kong for five years, and for the same employer all along. While it may sound good, the reality was that she had no choice. She left the house finally half a year ago to escape serious beating. On the day of the interview, she showed us a picture from her friend’s phone. In the picture her face was swollen and her leg was bruised. 

Her employer beat her as a punishment of minor mistakes. That was not the first time her employer beat her, but she never mentioned it to other people. All these years, her employer had controlled her tightly. She could only make phonecalls to her employer, and would be scolded if she disobeyed. She would also be scolded if her employer caught her talking to other people. “Sometimes I came home late from the market because of I had to queue. She would call me and ask me to go back in 15minutes,” Hana remembered. 

Since she has set foot in Hong Kong, she has been isolated from society and never taken a day off. “I had no money at all. Even if I had holidays, where would I go?” She never received her salary. Every time her employer had transferred the salary to her account, she would ask Hana to take it out and give it back. Hana could count with two hands the number of times she managed to send home some money. Together it was no more than eight times, and each time she had to borrow it from her employer. “The first time I sent 1.8k, the next time 1.8k; last time I sent 2k.” 

All of these are hard to believe. Even the least sympathetic person would ask, “Why did you not leave?” Hana does not plan to recover the unpaid salaries for five years because while there is evidence of her receiving it in her bank account, there is no evidence of it when she took it out to give it back to her employer in cash. The sad truth though, is that no one would believe her exactly because she does not make the effort to chase back the large amount of unpaid salary. It would not be in her interest to not tell the truth. Hana decided to go back to her hometown after the case, to be with her family. She has no idea if she would eventually come back to Hong Kong or not. 

For better or worse, the evidence of her employer’s violent treatment on her this time was too obvious to be covered up. The day after the beating, when she took her employer’s children to school, she was asked by her fellow FDWs about the injuries. She did not explain much. She went back to the house, but when she was cleaning the door, her injuries were seen by her other friends and they asked about it. Hana could not keep it to herself anymore. She told her friends everything. They took pictures of her injuries and gave her the number to the Mission for Migrant Workers. Under the encouragement of her friends and the possibility of escape, Hana finally left her employer’s place and started staying at Bethune House. 

Case lasts for 18 months while victims of abused regained confidence in the shelter 

When Hana first arrived at Bethune House, she thought it was a training centre of an agency. “I felt strange that people from so many places stay here.” After half a year, she came to understand this place. Here, no one would restrict her from sitting anywhere or talking to anymore. She returned to the normal weight of 60kg, from 45kg when she was first here. Apart from food and accommodation, Bethune House offers something even more important: a self-helping community. In this community, FDWs not only learn how to deal with their cases, but gain back a normal social life. 

For victims of prolonged mistreatment, to heal mentally is very important. At Bethune House, FDWs from different nationalities accept and support each other. They allow each other the space for rebuilding confidence. Community is an organic being that will not simply grow with a framework: a community of marginalized people can also undermine rather than help each other. Bethune House adopts the perspective of radical social movement, which emphasises on empowerment of the residents. Quite a few FDWs who had once lived in this house later became active in migrant workers movements. One legendary case is the Indonesian Migrant Workers Association (ATKI, Asosiasi Buruh Migran Indonesia di Hong Kong), which was established by residents of Bethune House 15 years ago. 

If not for such a supportive environment, it would be extremely difficult for residents to get through the many months when their cases are under way. It may feel so long that one would think it never ends. 

Usually, labour dispute cases need four to six months to be resolved. When criminal charges are involved, the Labour Tribunal will have to wait until the criminal charges are settled before  processing the case. The whole process may last from six months to one, two or even three years. 

FDWs are not allowed to work during this entire period. Under the “Two Weeks Rule”, FDWs need to leave Hong Kong if they cannot find a new employer within 14 days after their currently contract ends. In order to remain in Hong Kong for the case, they need to apply for visa extension at the Immigration Department. During this time, they will only be offered a travel visa which does not allow them to work. You may ask why cannot they apply for a new working visa, then work while waiting for the case to be processed? According to Ms Tong Hiu-yan, executive committee member of Mission for Migrant Workers, their experience was that the Immigration Department would not give out working visa for those in the middle of a labour dispute case. 

Without any income, FDWs need to stay in Hong Kong to wait for the case to process and give evidence at court. Their lives become very difficult after personal savings are used up, and relatives and friends could no longer subsidise them. Bethune House became a very important support during this period. 

Shelter faces bankruptcy in two months while the government shirks responsibilities of care

According to Edwina, the cost of running a shelter like this is at least HKD120,000 a month. This includes rent, utility bills, fees for extending visas, transportation, food, preparation for rescue actions, medical treatment, and hiring staff. At the beginning of this year, Bethune House lost one of its main donors. They organized a fundraising event, “Save Bethune House with your Red Pockets.” However, the shelter is still threatened by bankruptcy. Currently they only have reserve for expenses of up to five months. It needs at least a reserve to run for half a year to be safe. 

About 600 FDWs will stay at Bethune House in a year. When it is full, a bed needs to be shared by two to three persons. It is the reality of Hong Kong where space is extremely valuable. Even with such density, there are not enough room for all FDWs seeking help. Bethune House often needs to work with other religious organizations or private shelters to take in more. 

With such as large population of migrant workers in Hong Kong, why is there no publicly funded shelter, or any subsidies to expand the capacity of Bethune House? Edwina told us that it is not because the Hong Kong Government does not know about Bethune House – in fact, hospitals and the polices often refer cases to the shelter. 

Many years ago on a public consultation session, migrant workers organizations asked if the visa extension fee can be waved for those in a court case. The answer from the Labour and Welfare Bureau’s was “you can seek help from Bethune House.” Edwina was speechless hearing this. 
“It is because of FDWs that couples in Hong Kong can both work. If not for the 300,000 FDWs, how could they manage? They are hired by Hong Kong families because they are needed. They are also part of the community. They want acceptance and understanding of their situations and needs,” Edwina said. 

Despite seeing many horrendous cases at Bethune House all these years, Edwina still believes in the good people Hong Kong. If not for the private donations, Bethune House would not have stood for three decades. 

Donation detail provided by Bethune House: 

You can donate: 
$130 to support one resident for a day;
$1000 to support one resident for a week;
$3900 to support one resident for a month; or
$500 to offer accommodation for all residents in the two shelters

Ways of donation:
(1)If paying by check, please make payable to The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd., and send it to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral, 4-8 Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong. 
(2)Deposit into the bank account #284-8-241309 at Hang Seng Bank, The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd
(3)Go to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral in person.

For inquiry, please contact
(1)Edwina(English)-9488 9044
(2)Johannie(Chinese)-6306 9599
Donors of HK$100 or more are entitled to a tax deduction in Hong Kong!