Domestic workers in Hong Kong sleeping in ‘coffin beds’, on kitchen floors – Mingpao special report, 4 July


Inhumane accommodation in kitchen, toilets and washing machines rampant, foreign domestic workers in coffin beds

Special Report by Mingpao Reporter Yuen Pak Yan, 4 July 2012 (

The artist Purple Lee (also called Sister Purple) who has been known as the Queen of Children’s Songs, custom designed a ‘toilet bed’ for her domestic worker and triggered outrage throughout the city, as well as roused the concern of the Hong Kong public about the accommodation conditions of the foreign domestic workers.

Foreign domestic worker organizations point out, it is common for the workers to sleep in kitchens and bathroom floors, and even on top of washing machines.

Investigation for this report also found on the internet an employer’s public photo album of a domestic worker bed in a sealed panel , a ‘coffin bed’ inside a wall cabinet.


‘I am a little bit scared, because I once saw a cockroach pass through…’ Yuni who is from Indonesia lives with her employer a two-room, one living-room flat, but although the contract promised Yuni her own room, in reality every night she has to move the rubbish bin and sleep in the narrow aisle of the kitchen. It was Yuni’s first time to work in Hong Kong as a foreign domestic worker and she realized that Hong Kong’s living environment was cramped, but she says she still never imagined that she would have to sleep on the floor of the kitchen.


Every night, moving the rubbish bin and making her bed on the floor


In comparison, the living conditions of Alma from the Philippines are even worse. Her employer’s family has three bedrooms, but since her two sons returned home from overseas, she has had to ‘make her bed’ on the floor of the toilet. Every night she must sleep next to clothes that have just been washed and hanged to dry. ‘I feel very uncomfortable, but I don’t know what I can do,’ she says. She doesn’t dare to rashly resign, and her employer recently even does not let her use her phone in the home. This reporter was only able to contact her via text messaging.


Room for a TV room; domestic worker sleeps on toilet floor


Secretary of Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions Shiella points out, foreign domestic workers sleeping in the kitchen or toilet is quite common. Filipina domestic worker Fare injured her back in her first job as a domestic worker in Hong Kong when her employer made her sleep on the living room sofa, but when she changed jobs, her new employer only gave her a towel spread across the top of the washing machine and dryer to sleep on. She would be very careful when sleeping, yet she still had fallen off several times. Although the employer’s family had four rooms in the home, they preferred to keep one room vacant as the TV room; Shiella bluntly condemned this employer as immoral.


Recently on the online forum Baby Kingdom someone posted photos of ‘coffin rooms’ specially designed for domestic workers. With photos taken in 2008, the photo album was called ‘Bun Bun (Filipina)’ bed, and in them one can see that the employer has designed a glass wall cabinet in one corner of his living room, which, when you open the wooden door, you discover a 2.5 foot wide, 5 foot, 10 inch-wide long rectangle-shaped space, in which one can only get air from the space at the top of the cabinet and the slits on the side panel.


Among netizens there are both supporters and critics; some say it is like the ‘coffin cell’ of martyr activist Li Wangyang, while others say at least it is a private space.


Organizations urge review of the employer income limit


International Domestic Workers Network International Coordinator Elizabeth Tang points out: Hong Kong homes are cramped, but in the past, employers could pay an additional allowance for the worker to live outside the home. However since 2003, the Hong Kong government has made it a legal requirement for the foreign domestic worker to live in the home. Recently more and more households are employing domestic workers; but the requirement of employers to have income of not less than HK$15,000 has been in place for more than 10 years without review, indirectly causing domestic workers’ accommodation problems to significantly grow. She urges the government to review the relevant [required income] level and the legal requirement for foreign domestic workers to live with their employers.


Chairman of the Employers of Domestic Workers Association Joseph Law also thinks that employers must provide suitable accommodation as stated in the contract before arranging for a foreign domestic worker to come to Hong Kong, and if they are unable to honour the contract they should not take on the responsibility. He frankly says that if employers are unable to provide suitable accommodation for a foreign domestic worker, they should think over whether or not to hire them.



Decent employer: Would you let your child sleep in a toilet?


Provoked by indecent employers who mistreat their foreign domestic workers, Doris Lee, an employer who is sympathetic toward workers whose rights have been abused, several years ago organized an NGO concerning foreign domestic workers, in order to help them achieve better working hours and working conditions.


She thinks that employers should treat their domestic workers as they would want to be treated themselves: ‘Would you want your child to sleep in a toilet after a whole day at work?’


Doris has been employing a foreign domestic worker for 11 years: ‘Her age was about the same as mine, she had children like me, but had to leave her own children behind to take care of mine.’ Doris heard from domestic workers about many unscrupulous employers, but many of them would not stand up for their rights because of their need to earn a living. She then formed Open Door in 2009, to achieve regular working hours and better salary for foreign domestic workers. She thinks that allowing foreign domestic workers to have ideal working conditions is of mutual benefit to employers and workers, giving the example of agreement with the domestic worker on working hours – once the worker is ‘off work’ she can go to her own room and do what she enjoys, ‘If you draw a line between working and off-work hours, the worker can go on the Internet or talk on the phone after work, and during her worktime she will work more willingly for you.’


Interior designer: design of clothing drawers with bed is common


Mr Tsang Chi-ho, the founder of Fair Share Movement, who is also an interior designer, says, ‘It’s not uncommon to have orders from employers who want to fit a ‘collapsible bed’ with clothing drawers inside the store rooms. He believes that although Hong Kong homes are small, in the end, there are solutions for providing a certain amount of space to domestic workers, and making a person sleep in a wardrobe is absolutely not appropriate. A bed frame of 2.5 feet by 6 feet, above for sleeping and below for storing personal items, for humanity’s sake is a must.



Misrepresentation of accommodation of Foreign Domestic Workers can lead to two years of imprisonment


Living conditions provided by employers to foreign domestic workers are actually under the monitoring of the government. Employment contracts for foreign domestic workers are assessed by the Immigration Department. Employers should state clearly in the contract that s/he would provide suitable accommodation containing reasonable privacy to workers. Temporary accommodation without privacy is not acceptable. If an employer fails to provide accommodation as described in the contract, s/he may have to bear criminal liability.


Temporary bedding in the hallway is considered inappropriate arrangement


When employers apply for visas for foreign domestic workers, they should clearly describe the living area, and confirm whether they have the ability to provide accommodation for the worker. If the worker has to share a room with the employer’s children, they also have to provide the ages of the children for the Immigration Department’s assessment. In the contract, also, it is clearly expressed that arranging workers to sleep in temporary beddings in hallways without private space or to share a room with adults or teenagers of the opposite sex are seen as unsuitable arrangements.


Immigration Department is authorized to check any suspected cases


A representative from the Immigration Department said they will examine claims relating to accommodation arrangements given by employers. If they find any claim to be unreasonable and failing to meet the standard, the application for a visa will not be approved. Furthermore, the Immigration Department will investigate any complaint from a foreign domestic worker; if they find that the employer has misrepresented the accommodation arrangement, the employer could face a penalty of HK$10,000 and two years of imprisonment. Chairperson of the Immigration Service Association Ngan Shek Shui points out that the Immigration Department will actively look into any suspected cases. If the employer lives in public housing, or family members are many but the living area is small, they will ask the employer to provide photos as supporting evidence, and they will even visit the place in person. If foreign domestic workers encounter any problems with accommodation, they have the right to make complaints. Yet Ngan frankly admits that only few foreign domestic workers complain.


Photo captions:

A close look at the wall cabinet ‘coffin room’ (photos at upper right)

1. One netizen recently posted in the online forum ‘Baby Kingdom’, the photo album of one employer’s ‘Bun Bun (Filipina) bed’; it is a custom-designed wall cabinet in one corner of the living room, with the interior ‘measured to fit’ as a ‘Bun Bun bed’ (domestic worker’s bed); the domestic worker must climb in as shown in the photo, left, through the cabinet door into the ‘coffin room’.


2. When you open the door on the left side of the wall cabinet, it is the ‘coffin room’ of the domestic worker; on the lower left of the photo is the steps which are also a shoe rack.


3. When you open the wall cabinet door, inside is a 2.5 feet by 5 feet, 10 inches space. The one believed to be the employer of the domestic worker whose room is in the photo points out, ‘This is where the domestic worker sleeps, there are several shelves and a rack to hang her clothes, and later we added a fan for her; until now she has said it’s OK,’ and under the bed there is also a place for storage.


Other ‘cruel’ domestic worker accommodations (photos on bottom right)


Making one’s bed on the bathroom floor, with toilet for company

One domestic worker’s accommodation was arranged for her on the bathroom floor; in the morning she must rise early to vacate it for the employer to use. The situation was earlier already attacked as being even worse than the ‘toilet bed’ of artist Purple Lee’s domestic worker.


To place the rubbish bin in the day, for domestic worker to sleep at night

Domestic worker Yuni was made to sleep in the kitchen, with pots and refrigerator on the left, and a cupboard on the right. The place where Yuni makes her bed is where the rubbish bin is placed in the daytime. (Photo from domestic worker organization)


Sleeping on living room floor, zero privacy

Domestic worker Gina was made to sleep on one corner of the living room , originally a space for hanging laundry. The living room also has a surveillance video camera, and even worse, the male employer sometimes sleeps on the living room sofa on the left, making her feel that she has no privacy at all.


Translation by volunteers from Open Door: Doris, Kwan, Jus, Byford


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