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HK migrant workers call for better protection and rights

In Hong Kong, migrant workers were on Thursday out in full force, calling for better protection and rights.

HONG KONG: In Hong Kong, thousands of May Day protesters on Thursday marched to call for higher wages and better working conditions.

They also want the government to legislate standard working hours.

Migrant workers were also out in full force, calling for better protection and rights.

There are some 320,000 foreign domestic workers in the territory, earning a statutory minimum wage of US$514 per month.

Recently, there have been several high profile court cases of abuse and torture of domestic workers.

23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih suffered horrific torture, beatings and malnutrition at the hands of her employer who now faces criminal charges.

Marching towards the Indonesian consulate, workers are calling on the government to rethink policies that leave domestic helpers open to abuse.

A recent survey by a rights group has found abuse to be widespread.

Eman Villanueva, Asian Migrants' Coordinating Body convener, said: "There are more than 60 per cent who responded who are experiencing different forms of verbal abuse. And there are more than 11 per cent who said that they are experiencing physical abuse, and about 5 per cent who said they are victims of sexual abuse. This number only shows the number of victims is quite significant but the (number of) people who are coming forward to complain is very small."

Campaigners said the mandatory rule that employees live with their employer, and have to leave Hong Kong within two weeks of a contract ending, is preventing workers from reporting abuse.

Erwiana is the new poster child for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. She has been named Time magazine's 100 most influential people this year for standing up to her employer and advocating more rights for domestic workers.

Erwiana hopes her example will inspire others to speak-up for being unfairly treated.

Conditions for local wage earners have also deteriorated.

Despite a minimum wage introduced three years ago, one local trade union said real wages are lower than they were 15 years ago after taking into account inflation.

Also, the average work week in Hong Kong is nearly 49 hours, more than 20 per cent above international standards.

Lee Cheuk-yan, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions’ general secretary, said: "Workers are asked to work for 12 hours (or) 13 hours, six days a week. There's no regulation at all, this is really hurting the balance between work and life for Hong Kong."

But the government has defended its policies, adding that earnings by low-income workers have improved, and that the number of people employed has risen steadily. 

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