HK woman jailed 6 years for Indonesian maid abuse

HONG KONG, China (3rd UPDATE) – A Hong Kong woman was jailed for six years on Friday, February 27, for beating and starving her Indonesian maid and keeping her prisoner.

Law Wan-tung – who had faced a maximum sentence of 7 years – "showed no compassion" to Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and other domestic staff, said judge Amanda Woodcock in handing down the sentence.

Law saw her staff as "people that are beneath her" said Woodcock.

Of Erwiana's treatment she added: "She was given little rest, sleep and nutrition which left her a shadow of her former self."

Woodcock called for an investigation by Hong Kong and Indonesian authorities into the workers' conditions.

 

Erwiana, 24, told a Hong Kong court in December how she lived on nothing but meagre rations of bread and rice, slept only 4 hours a day and was beaten so badly by her employer Law Wan-tung that she was knocked unconscious.

During the 6-week trial, prosecutors said mother-of-two Law, 44, turned household items such as a mop, a ruler and a clothes hanger into "weapons" against her maids.

Law was convicted on 18 of 20 charges laid against her, including grievous bodily harm, assault, criminal intimidation and failure to pay wages. (READ: HK woman found guilty of torturing Indonesian maid)

"It is regrettable that this conduct is not rare and sadly is often dealt with in the criminal courts," said Woodcock.

"Such conduct could be prevented if domestic helpers were not forced to live in their employer's home," which is stipulated under Hong Kong law and is a key point which campaigners want reformed.

Woodcock also highlighted the "significant fees" charged to domestic helpers by agencies in their home countries and deducted from their Hong Kong salaries.

"There must be an element of exploitation here... the domestic helper becomes trapped when they are unhappy, but cannot leave or change employers because the debt needs to be paid off," she said.

'Not a monster'

A former beautician, Law looked stunned as the sentence was passed. She was also ordered to pay a fine of HK$15,000 ($1,934).

Law looked emotionless as she was led out of court. She had pleaded not guilty to the 20 charges but had admitted one of not buying insurance cover for her maid.

In court earlier on Friday, defense lawyer Graham Harris emphasised Law's charity work and role as a mother.

"She is not the callous monster which is the picture painted in relation to this particular case," he said before the hearing was adjourned until later Friday for the judge to consider the mitigation plea.

She was "obsessed with cleanliness" and had high expectations of her staff, he said.

"The case was very high-profile publicity, not only in Hong Kong but all over the world," Harris added. "She's been vilified, she's been demonized, she's been ostracized."

'We are not slaves' 

Erwiana was in court for the sentencing, wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of her own face and the word "justice". (READ: Erwiana: From domestic helper to rights activist)

Dozens of protesters outside the court shouted: "We are workers, we are not slaves," before the hearing began.

"The case is a way to ask the government to change their policies for domestic helpers," said 63-year-old domestic worker Dolores Dayao.

"I hope she gets the maximum sentence."

Erwiana has said she has forgiven Law but hopes her former employer will receive the greatest possible sentence, "even though for me, that is still not enough compared to what she did to me and other victims".

She welcomed the court's guilty verdict earlier this month, but called for reforms to ensure Hong Kong employers no longer treated domestic workers "like slaves".

Erwiana has also said that Indonesia must not shirk its responsibilities to protect its citizens who travel abroad to work.

Pictures of Erwiana looking frail and emaciated, in a critical condition at an Indonesian hospital in January last year after she left Hong Kong, focused the spotlight on domestic helpers' rights.

The city is home to nearly 300,000 maids, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and criticism from campaign groups over their treatment is growing.

Amnesty International in 2013 condemned the "slavery-like" conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian women who work as domestic staff and accused authorities of "inexcusable" inaction.

The court is expected to reconvene at 0330 GMT. – with a report from Reuters/Rappler.com