Hope and History: Lessons from JWB’s First Death Inquest in Hong Kong

July 21, 2022
Category: Cases | Communications

This story covers our launch of a ground-breaking case that began in 2021 and continued into the following year. 

Families are all too often left in the dark when a loved one working as a migrant worker suddenly passes away overseas. At best, families will receive their loved one’s remains and a small settlement check, but they may never know what actually happened. 

A death inquest is a chance for closure, even when the cause of death remains unclear. For families, it is official recognition that something happened, and it is the attempt to understand that can make all the difference. Unfortunately, most migrant workers’ families have no way of engaging a death inquest from abroad, if they even know such a process exists. 

From 2019 to 2022, JWB had the opportunity to help one such family, and in the process, bring Hong Kong’s first overseas death inquest for a domestic worker.

From Abuse to Hearings Long Delayed 

Leonita passed away suddenly in April 2017. She had just started working for the employer and her family five months earlier, in December 2016. Soon after, she complained to her employment agency of poor treatment, including long working hours, an overwhelming number of tasks, malnourishment, and even abuse.  

Leonita had then given her one month’s notice in mid-March. Just three weeks later, she was found unconscious at the family’s home. She was taken to hospital and declared dead, with the subsequent autopsy and police investigation declaring her cause of death “unknown”. 

Leonita’s sister Imelda led the family’s quest for truth from the Philippines. She connected with Justice Without Borders in 2019, embarking on a three-year-long journey to the launch of the inquest in 2021 and the hearing proper in 2022.  

A seven-day series of hearings took the court through witnesses that included one of Leonita’s friends, medical examiners, and the employment agency. Sadly, the employers had since left Hong Kong, immigrating abroad. Ultimately, the inquest jury ruled Leonita’s death to be from “natural causes”. Leonita was only 46.

The Jury’s Recommendations

A death inquest gives juries a chance to review the process leading up to and following a worker’s death. While they could not determine Leonita’s cause of death, they highlighted the following points to address similar situations in the future for the government’s consideration:

  • Require agents to keep workers’ records, including health report, for the duration of their work with an employer.
  • Create a license examination system to ensure agencies understand the laws and rights related to migrant workers.
  • Create a worker employment checklist for agents to explain the roles and responsibilities for employers and employees, and provide information on channels for workers’ complaints and any needed assistance. 

From Disappointment to Closure to Hope for the Future

Leonita’s hearing was historic, and also very sad for her family. The outcome did not give them a clear cause of death, and the employer’s disappearance meant there were questions left unanswered. At the same time, the family was able to honour Leonita’s memory while achieving some sense of closure—the inquest led to the jury making recommendations to improve Hong Kong’s existing response systems for migrant workers, should the worst happen.  The family, and all of us, are hopeful that these recommendations lead to better outcomes for other grieving families in the future.

Justice Abroad is Possible

Imelda’s determination to seek justice and truth for her sister all the way from the Philippines was at the core of this inquest. Despite not in Hong Kong, Imelda endeavored to familiarize herself with its legal system and connected with local organizations for help. JWB served as her main point of contact and provided legal advice and timely updates necessary. After case screening, JWB referred her case to partner law firms and helped gather evidence from Hong Kong Police Force, Leonita’s employment agency and the Coroner’s Court. With technical and logistical support from frontliners in the Philippines, Imelda attended the Inquest at the Court of First Instance via remote hearing.  Justice takes a village to happen – It is nearly impossible for overseas clients to apply for a death inquest in Hong Kong without a regional organization mobilizing legal resources and coordinating different stakeholders.

“I am relieved that the inquest finally completed five years after my sister passed away. I would like to thank those who helped make this inquest possible. I am also grateful to everyone who participated in the inquest, so I could have a chance to learn my sister’s story from them,” Imelda said after the inquest.

“I pray that other workers will always be careful and do not go through what my sister suffered with her employer. I hope this inquest inspires people in Hong Kong to pay more attention to the grievances of migrant workers,” she added.

Death inquests for migrant workers are rare in Hong Kong owing to a plethora of hurdles with their application. Court-ordered death inquest often call for public interest and the applicant must bear the burden of proving to the court that the death inquest is necessary. Moreover, compared to direct civil claims, death inquests do not formally result in civil liability or direct monetary compensation, which may further the financial burden for applicants. Nonetheless, it is the quest for truth and justice that helps Imelda move forward, not money.

Migrant workers’ lives matter and they deserve equal respect in the places they work. JWB is here to ensure that migrant workers and their families have equal access to justice away from home, even when the worst happens.

Our sincere thanks to Imelda’s pro bono lawyer Mr. Benjamin Chan, barrister-at-law, Mr. Chris Lucas of T.H. Koo & Associates, and the Provincial Government of Negros Occidental in the Philippines who provided legal services and logistical support, respectively.

By Jonathan White, PR Volunteer @JWB