Click and save: websites help Asian maids escape debt bondage

An Indonesian resident walks past graffiti on a down town street in Hong Kong Sunday, June 17, 2018. (AP)
Updated 18 June 2018
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Click and save: websites help Asian maids escape debt bondage

  • From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages
  • Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws

HONG KONG/BEIRUT: Worn out and empty, it was past midnight when Filipino maid Genelie Millan dragged herself back to her room, took out her phone to search for a way to escape her abusive employer — and came across a website that changed her life. HelperChoice is one of several online services cutting out the middleman — recruiters who charge would-be maids exorbitant fees – and helping them to avoid getting trapped in debt bondage to exploitative employers.
Since leaving her 11-year-old son in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong in 2010, Millan had been forced to sleep on a sofa and hit with a pair of chopsticks before finding the site which let her choose her own, more sympathetic boss. “They treat me like their family, they trust me a lot,” the 39-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages.
Affluent financial hub Hong Kong is one of the biggest destinations for maids in Asia, with some 370,000 women from the Philippines and Indonesia heading in large numbers to work there, according to government data.
Millan borrowed 100,000 Philippine pesos ($1,915) to pay recruiters when she moved to the southern Chinese city – a huge sum for someone from a poor Filipino family.
The Hong Kong-based HelperChoice website provides a platform for employers and helpers to connect directly and promises to help them find the “perfect match in an ethical way.”

WIN-WIN
For a fee starting at HK$350 ($45), potential employers can log on to the portal and access a database of job-seeking helpers to set up interviews. Helpers do not pay to register.
Employers can choose to pay more for additional services such as having the paperwork done on their behalf.
“It’s a win-win situation,” HelperChoice’s chief executive Alexandra Golovanow said, adding that both employers and helpers can keep looking until they find the right candidate.
The website, set up in 2012, has found jobs for about 8,000 maids, Golovanow said, adding that its popularity was due in part to heightened awareness about their mistreatment.
In Hong Kong, laws stipulate recruiters cannot charge more than 10 percent of a helper’s first month salary but a study by campaign group Rights Exposure showed in reality maids are often overcharged, sometimes 25 times the legally permitted amount.
“In some cases, employment agencies also take away their passport. Helpers just can’t leave because they have no paper, no documentations,” Golovanow said.
“This is modern slavery — people have no alternatives.”
A similar initiative, Hong Kong-based Fair Employment Agency (FEA) also allows employers and helpers to register online and only charges the bosses for the hiring.
Unlike HelperChoice, a team of staff at FEA help match maids to bosses based on criteria they have entered on their profile.
The FEA has placed 2,000 helpers with employers since it was set up in 2015 and estimates it has saved these workers altogether some $3 million — money which would otherwise have gone to recruiters.
“Right now the reason why recruitment is so mired in these unethical things is because there are too many players and no accountability,” said Victoria Ahn from the Fair Employment Foundation, which runs the FEA project.
“Technology will play a huge role in clearing that up and reducing the number of players.”
EMPOWERMENT
Despite such efforts to clean up the industry, activists say the multimillion-dollar recruitment trade will continue and the government must step up its actions against unscrupulous firms.
Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws, but it did not specify if the convictions were related to overcharging.
“Vigorous enforcement action will be taken out against any employment agencies’ contravention to the law,” a spokesman from the labor department said in emailed comments.
Hong Kong this year introduced laws with heavier fines and three-year prison terms for recruiters overcharging helpers.
Such initiatives are also slowly making inroads in the Middle East, which is known for its notorious “kafala” sponsorship system that binds migrant workers to one employer.
The controversial system has long been criticized by activists for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs without their employer’s consent.
Filipino helper Sheryl Cruz, who is based in Qatar, found out about HelperChoice through Facebook when she was searching for a job after her employer died from cancer in 2016.
Reluctant to go a recruitment agency that would give her no say in who she could work for, she used the portal to connect with a Pakistani family in the Gulf kingdom looking for a maid.
“You can see all the (employers) and what they are looking for and contact them directly,” the 31-year-old said.
Cruz, who has 12 years experience as a domestic worker, felt empowered as, for the first time, she was able to set her own terms when negotiating for the new job — she asked for a day off and a higher salary.
“I felt good setting my salary,” she said.
For Millan in Hong Kong, HelperChoice was a godsend.
Living with a boss she likes is a big change, having begged a previous employer to treat her “as a person, not an animal.”
Despite all the hardship, she does not think about quitting.
“I always think about my son — my son’s future,” she said, smiling at other domestic workers who, like her, were enjoying a Sunday break in a Hong Kong park.


Chicago prosecutors charge R. Kelly with abusing 4 victims

This June 13, 2008 file photo shows R&B singer R. Kelly, arriving at 3the Cook County Criminal Court Building in Chicago. (AP)
Updated 17 min 46 sec ago
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Chicago prosecutors charge R. Kelly with abusing 4 victims

  • The singer and songwriter, whose legal name is Robert Kelly, rose from poverty on Chicago’s South Side and has retained a sizable following, despite the accusations

CHICAGO: R. Kelly, the R&B star who has been trailed for decades by allegations that he violated underage girls and women and held some as virtual slaves, was charged Friday with aggravated sexual abuse involving four victims, including at least three between the ages of 13 and 17.
In a brief appearance before reporters, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Kim Foxx announced the 10 counts against the 52-year-old Grammy winner. She said the abuse dated back as far as 1998 and spanned more than a decade. She did not comment on the charges or take questions.
The singer, who has consistently denied any sexual misconduct, was to appear in court Saturday. His attorney, Steve Greenberg, said Kelly planned to turn himself in Friday night.
“He is extraordinarily disappointed and depressed. He is shell-shocked by this,” Greenberg told The Associated Press.
The arrest sets the stage for another #MeToo-era celebrity trial. Bill Cosby went to prison last year, and former Hollywood studio boss Harvey Weinstein is awaiting trial.
Best known for hits such as “I Believe I Can Fly,” Kelly was charged a week after Michael Avenatti, the attorney whose clients have included porn star Stormy Daniels, said he gave prosecutors new video evidence of the singer with an underage girl. It was not immediately clear if the charges were connected to that video, which Avenatti said included audio in which Kelly and the girl say several times that she is 14 years old.
Avenatti said the charges marked “a watershed moment in the 25 years of abuse” by Kelly and that he believes more than 10 other people associated with Kelly should be charged as “enablers” for helping with the assaults, transporting minors and covering up evidence.
The video surfaced during a 10-month investigation. Avenatti told the AP that the person who provided the VHS tape knew both Kelly and the female in the video.
In 2008, a jury acquitted Kelly of child pornography charges over a graphic video that prosecutors said showed him having sex with a girl as young as 13. He and the young woman allegedly depicted with him denied they were in the 27-minute video, even though the picture quality was good and witnesses testified it was them, and she did not take the stand. Kelly could have gotten 15 years in prison.
Charging Kelly now for actions that occurred in the same time frame as the allegations from the 2008 trial suggests the accusers are cooperating this time and willing to testify.
Because the alleged victim 10 years ago denied that she was on the video and did not testify, the state’s attorney office had little recourse except to charge the lesser offense under Illinois law, child pornography, which required a lower standard of evidence.
Each count carries up to seven years in prison. If Kelly is convicted on all 10 counts, a judge could decide that the sentences run one after the other — making it possible for him to receive up to 70 years behind bars. Probation is also an option under the statute.
Greenberg said he offered to sit down with prosecutors before charges were filed to discuss why the allegations were “baseless.” But they refused, he said.
“Unfortunately, they have succumbed to the court of public opinion, who’ve convicted him,” he said.
Legally and professionally, the walls began closing in on Kelly after the release of a BBC documentary about him last year and the multipart Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired last month. Together they detailed allegations he was holding women against their will and running a “sex cult.”
After the latest documentary, Foxx said she was “sickened” by the allegations and asked potential victims to come forward.
#MeToo activists and a social media movement using the hashtag #MuteRKelly called on streaming services to drop Kelly’s music and promoters not to book any more concerts. Protesters demonstrated outside Kelly’s Chicago studio.
As recently as Thursday, two women held a news conference in New York to describe how Kelly picked them out of a crowd at a Baltimore after-party in the mid-1990s when they were underage. They said Kelly had sex with one of the teens when she was under the influence of marijuana and alcohol and could not consent.
Latresa Scaff and Rochelle Washington were joined by lawyer Gloria Allred when they told their story publicly for the first time.
In the indictment, the prosecution addresses the question of the statute of limitations, saying that even abuse that happened more than two decades ago falls within the charging window allowed under Illinois law. Victims have 20 years to report abuse, beginning after they turn 18.
The singer and songwriter, whose legal name is Robert Kelly, rose from poverty on Chicago’s South Side and has retained a sizable following, despite the accusations. He has written numerous hits for himself and other artists, including Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga. His collaborators have included Jay-Z and Usher.
Kelly broke into the R&B scene in 1993 with his first solo album, “12 Play,” which produced such popular sex-themed songs as “Bump N’ Grind” and “Your Body’s Callin’.”
Months after those successes, the then-27-year-old Kelly faced allegations he married 15-year-old Aaliyah, the R&B star who later died in a plane crash in the Bahamas. Kelly was the lead songwriter and producer of Aaliyah’s 1994 debut album.
Kelly and Aaliyah never confirmed the marriage, though Vibe magazine published a copy of the purported marriage license. Court documents later obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times showed Aaliyah admitted lying about her age on the license.
Jim DeRogatis, a longtime music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, played a key role in drawing the attention of law enforcement to Kelly. In 2002, he received the sex tape in the mail that was central to Kelly’s 2008 trial. He turned it over to prosecutors. In 2017, DeRogatis wrote a story for BuzzFeed about the allegations Kelly was holding women against their will in Georgia.