‘Landmark Decision’ by Hong Kong Labour Tribunal Lets Domestic Helper Appear at Hearing Via Video Link from the Philippines

February 21, 2019

(c) South China Morning Post
February 20, 2019
Naomi Ng
Su Xinqi

  • Mallorca Domingo to appear on conference call, paving the way for migrant workers to pursue claims from abroad
Domestic workers gather in Central on a public holiday. Photo: Edward Wong

Hong Kong’s Labour Tribunal will for the first time allow a former domestic worker to appear in court via video link, in what a charity called a landmark decision that paves the way for migrant workers to pursue claims from abroad.

At a hearing on Tuesday afternoon, the tribunal, which handles monetary disputes between companies and employees, granted permission for Mallorca Domingo to appear on September 16 from the Philippines, according to Justice Without Borders.

While conference calling is sometimes used in trials at the High Court and District Court, the practice has not been used by the tribunal.

A spokesman for the judiciary said whether a person would be allowed to give evidence by way of a live television link from a place outside Hong Kong was the decision of the court or tribunal concerned.

All previous cases have required the claimant to be physically present at the tribunal in Yau Ma Tei.

The precondition meant many had to forgo their claims if they returned home, or were forced to stay unemployed in the city if they chose to pursue them, Justice Without Borders said.

While conference calling is sometimes used in trials at the High Court and District Court, the practice has not been used by the tribunal. Photo: EPA-EFE

The group, which has been helping Domingo and other migrant workers with cross-border claims, hailed the victory.

“Today’s landmark decision gives workers real hope they can pursue justice for common employment violations, even after they leave the city,” it said.

“Claimants can now go on with their lives without giving up their right to access justice. It also means bad employers cannot escape responsibility by dragging their feet until their former employees go home.”

The group added it had set a clear precedent for future cases involving the 369,000 foreign domestic workers employed in Hong Kong.

Domingo first launched her claim against her former boss, Ng Mei-shuen, in October 2016, alleging she had been slapped by Ng and dismissed without proper grounds in September that year.

Domestic workers gather in Central on a public holiday. Photo: Edward Wong

The worker lodged a claim for HK$85,900 (US$10,950) to cover lost wages and the cost of travel between the Philippines and Hong Kong.

Domingo requested she appear via a video conference call because she had to tend to her sick mother, who was suffering from lung cancer in the Philippines. The worker also said she could not afford to return to the city.

The request was initially shot down by the tribunal in March 2017, before a High Court ruling last June ordered a different presiding officer at the lower court to reconsider Domingo’s case.

The officer, Timon Shum Kei-leong, on Tuesday also approved a request by Domingo to have a trade union officer represent her at the hearing in September.

Domingo will join via video for only one day as she cannot take leave for longer without losing her job. The union representative will handle the remainder of the proceedings, the group said.

According to the government, there were 369,651 domestic helpers employed in Hong Kong in 2017. About half were from the Philippines, while the remainder were from Indonesia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

Victor Wong Hon-leung, an organising secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions, welcomed the tribunal’s decision.

“It is a big leap forward in protecting migrant workers’ rights,” Wong said.

“It’s quite common in Hong Kong that foreign domestic workers are forced to give up on suing or claiming damages from their employer or agency because they can’t afford to stay in the city without a job for the hearings, which can easily last more than a year.”

Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Employers of Domestic Helpers Association, said the governments of Hong Kong and relevant foreign countries must come up with an arrangement to guarantee the reliability of video links.

“If a foreign domestic worker is allowed to take part in a hearing via video, the process must be conducted under the supervision of the court or the government in that country,” Yung said.

“If that can be guaranteed through an official agreement, we welcome such use of technology, because a domestic worker could then return home after a case is lodged instead of staying in Hong Kong and risking becoming an illegal labourer.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Landmark’ decision on video link.