SHENZHEN, China – Authorities are investigating the death of 20-year-old Filipino domestic helper who fell from a building on the mainland after being sent there to work by her Hong Kong employers. Officials have classified the tragedy as a “suspected case of human-trafficking”.
The case has exposed a “dangerous trend” of local employers dispatching their helpers to work illegally outside the city, said rights groups, citing mounting complaints over the past few years.
The family of the dead worker, Lorain Asuncion, who are in Hong Kong to seek answers, said before her death she had shared her dread each time she had to go to the mainland with her employer.
On July 24, Asuncion’s family was informed by a Hong Kong employment agency that she had fallen to her death that day from the seventh floor of an apartment building in Shenzhen.
They had no other details, according to her sister and aunt, as the Hong Kong employer had declined to meet them, choosing instead to answer questions via the consulate.
“We were told that she jumped. But we think the death of my sister is very suspicious. We want to know what happened and have justice,” said Jenevieve Javier, 29.
A spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s Immigration Department, which was notified about the death by the consulate, told the Post that it had “referred the suspected human-trafficking case to the police for follow-up action.”
A police spokesman said they were gathering facts. “We would like to reiterate that all kinds of crimes, including offences related to human-trafficking, are not tolerated in Hong Kong. Police … will continue to conduct proactive investigation and prosecution of relevant cases,” he warned.
Rights groups said the number of cases of Hong Kong employers taking their helpers to the mainland has grown in recent years, even though such a practice went against the helpers’ contracts. They said there were also cases of maids hired in Hong Kong who ended up being taken illegally to work full-time for families on the mainland.
Asuncion’s death came reports suggested last month the Chinese government was considering allowing foreign domestic workers to be hired in five top cities. Late last year, foreigners as well as Hong Kong and Macau residents in Guangdong province were allowed to hire helpers from abroad.
According to Asuncion’s relatives, she had been taken to the mainland about four times since October 2016, when she began working for the couple. “She was afraid because of the language and when she was in [mainland]China she did not have access to social networks, so she could not talk to us,” said her aunt, Susan Escorial, 48.
“Last time, she was even more afraid because she would not be with her real employer,” Escorial said, claiming that her niece was left in Shenzhen with another relative while the couple went on holidays.
According to Escorial, she had complained in recent weeks she did not have adequate rest and Javier said she and her employer had an argument as she had not been allowed to go on holidays to the Philippines.
Both said Asuncion had not shown signs of depression or personal problems. “She had many friends and relatives here,” Escorial said.
When the Post contacted her employer, he acknowledged his name, but upon hearing the call was about Asuncion, he hung after saying: “I think you got wrong information. I cannot talk right now.”
The Sunlight Employment Agency, which processed Asuncion’s contract, did not respond to queries.
A spokesman for the Philippine Consulate General in Guangzhou said Asuncion’s body was in a morgue in Shenzhen. The consulate was in touch with the Guangdong Public Security Department to obtain the autopsy and the police reports as well as the death certificate. Authorities in the mainland did not respond to Post’s queries.
Danilo Baldon, an assistant to nationals at the consulate in Hong Kong, said the office received about four complaints in past months of domestic helpers who were taken to the mainland China against their wishes for stretches of time. But it was difficult to estimate the extent of the problem. “We don’t know, because they don’t report it for fear of having their contracts terminated,” he said.
Holly Allan, director of HELP for Domestic Workers – a support group for helpers in Hong Kong – said that over the past year they received at least one such case a month. “There is a trend. We have dealt with a number of cases – either working there full time or for periods of time,” she said, noting that has become more frequent.
Cynthia Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission for Migrant Workers, said that over the past year her NGO received between 10 and 20 inquiries from helpers over the same issue, adding that was a “conservative” estimate.
Abdon-Tellez warned families who took their helpers abroad that they were “both taking a risk: the helper goes as tourist, which means that she does not have a permit to work there, and the employer is usually breaching the contract and should be held responsible if something happens.”
The US State Department’s annual report on human-trafficking released in June said that “some foreign domestic workers sign contracts to work in Hong Kong, but upon arrival are sent to work in mainland China .” Advocates have called for an anti-human trafficking law, as current provisions forbid human-trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, but not for forced labour.
A spokesman for the Labour Department said if employers breach contracts, including “arranging foreign domestic helpers to work in places other than set out”, that will be taken into consideration in assessing the employers’ future applications for employing helpers.
The department also said that a person who makes a false statement to the immigration – for instance, someone playing as a front for a family in the mainland – is liable to prosecution and might receive a maximum fine of HK$150,000 and imprisonment for 14 years.
Asuncion’s family is seeking legal aid to pursue compensation claims in the city.
But for her family, the real loss was not being able to see Asuncion again and returning to the house she was building in the Philippines. “She was a very hardworking girl, and she was aiming at many things,” recalled her aunt, holding back tears.“We hope this does not happen to others.”