Mary* arrived in Hong Kong last October seeking an opportunity to provide a better life for her loved ones back in the Philippines by taking up employment as a domestic worker. Following in the footsteps of many other women before her, she knew that the role would be challenging, entailing hard work and long hours coupled with being so far away from her five children and husband. However, she certainly never imagined that she would be in the situation she found herself in, falsely accused of theft, leaving her destitute in a foreign country at the mercy of a foreign legal system.
Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong Mary began working for a family of 4. Although her working relationship with the family was somewhat tolerable for the first few months, Mary found that she had to return to the Philippines after receiving word back home that her children were not being properly looked after. In early December, Mary informed her employers of her family situation and her desire to be with them, but the employers asked her to stay until they found a new domestic worker. Although it wasn’t ideal, Mary agreed to stay with the family until February, which would give her employers approximately two months to find a replacement.
At this point, Mary’s working relationship with the employers quickly deteriorated. They complained of the difficulty and cost of hiring a new domestic worker and repeatedly demanded that she stay longer, giving her the cold shoulder when she remained firm about leaving in February. But she knew her family needed her more and she wanted to return home as soon as possible to take care of them.
Days after her refusal to extend her stay with the employers, the situation took a turn for the worse. Although Mary continued to perform her daily duties, she only got paid part of her salary. It was also at this time that the female employer questioned Mary about a missing Octopus card, insisting it was “impossible” that the employer’s child had lost it, as she said this has never happened before.
One evening, Mary was awoken at around 10 p.m. by her male employer knocking on her bedroom door. He called her into the living room where two police officers were waiting. Completely dumbfounded, Mary inquired as to what the problem was. Her employer then turns to her and said, “I am so disappointed in you.”
Mary was clueless as to what the employer was talking about, but the police proceeded to search her belongings. These were stored in a common room used by members of the family as there was no space in in her room. The employer directed the police to search a handbag which Mary had left in the common room over the previous few days. As the police searched her wallet, they questioned her about the cash found in it, which included wages she previously received from the employer and, to her surprise, several foreign bank notes that did not belong to her. She emphatically denied putting them in her wallet. Directed by the employer, the police looked inside another compartment in the wallet and pulled out a necklace. Mary felt distraught when it dawned on her that she had been set up. Again she told the police the necklace and foreign currency were not hers and she did not put them there.
As the police further investigated as to how Mary’s employers knew the bank notes and necklace were in the handbag, the employers stated they had searched the handbag without Mary’s knowledge. They did this prior to calling the police, purportedly to look for their child’s missing Octopus card. Mary was arrested and charged with theft of the necklace and various foreign bank notes. She found herself destitute in a foreign country unable to leave Hong Kong and yet not permitted to take up employment, with mounting fears as to how she would navigate the legal process and prove her innocence.
At the first hearing of her case, Mary was told that if she pleaded guilty to the charge, the matter could be resolved quickly and she would receive a lighter sentence, enabling her to leave Hong Kong sooner. The prospect of a protracted legal battle while her children remained uncared for in the Philippines made her consider this bitter option. However, the thought of admitting to a crime she did not commit and having a criminal record was too unpalatable for her.
At the shelter she was staying in, another domestic worker advised her to approach HELP for Domestic Workers for assistance. HELP took her statement in detail and devised a plan of action to assist her with her case, which included legal support and emotional counselling. HELP worked with the Duty Lawyer who represented Mary at the trial and explained her defense, highlighting the questionable circumstances surrounding the allegation against her, and the high probability of a frame up by a disgruntled employer. HELP also arranged a counselling session at St. John’s Cathedral to help Mary deal with the emotional stress of being falsely accused of a crime.
Justice eventually prevailed and Mary was found not guilty and cleared of all charges. Rather than spend more time in Hong Kong pursuing claims for damages against her former employer for putting her through this harrowing ordeal, Mary chose to put the matter behind her and return home to the Philippines to be with her family.
It will be difficult for Mary to forget this traumatic experience, but the dignity with which she carried herself in the face of such harsh adversity is something Mary should be proud of.
Sadly, HELP for Domestic Workers encounters far too many similar stories of malicious allegations and unjust treatment.
*Client’s name changed to protect her privacy.