Standing Up for Unpaid Wages: One Woman’s Fight Across Borders

September 30, 2020
Category: Cases | Partnerships
Photo by Nora Tam via SCMP

Our client story this month comes from Hong Kong. It involves unpaid wages, one of the most common issues that migrant workers across the region face.

Josephine (not her real name) was working as a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong. One day, her employers took her with them to work as a live-in nanny in another country. Josephine was happy about signing a new local employment contract that came with a higher salary.

Unfortunately, the hope of a promising start in a new country was short-lived. Taking her passport, Josephine’s employers forced her to work every day with no break, from 6am to 11pm. Sometimes, she was so busy that she only had time for one meal in her 17-hour work day. They gave her no days off.

Some time into this gruelling schedule, Josephine asked her employer to pay her outstanding salary and return her passport. Eventually, following a difficult episode, Josephine managed to secure the return of her passport. At the same time, Josephine’s employer instructed her to return to Hong Kong with the family.

Shown the Door Back in Hong Kong

Once back in Hong Kong, Josephine was unable to obtain payment for the time she had worked abroad. When pressed, her employer said that he would only pay Josephine the amount she would have earned under her Hong Kong contract, thereby disregarding completely the local contract Josephine had signed and the time she had spent working hard abroad.

The employers offered a flimsy excuse: they had spent money taking her abroad and paying for her to be present with the family on trips out, so Josephine should be grateful for the opportunity of travelling with them. The reality was that Josephine had been working constantly, attending to the family at home and on trips out and looking after their every need to the point of exhaustion. The experience of living and working abroad had not been for Josephine’s benefit and had not been enjoyable for her.

Josephine stood her ground and demanded the full salary owed to her. In return, her employer fired her on the spot and showed her out of the house in Hong Kong on the same day. They also withheld her termination payment, which employers usually have to pay when firing workers on the spot in Hong Kong.

With nowhere else to go, Josephine sought assistance from HELP for Domestic Workers (HELP), a frontline non-profit that supports Hong Kong’s migrant worker community. HELP later handed over the case to JWB’s Hong Kong office to help recover the salary that Josephine earned overseas.

JWB’s international legal network then kicked into gear. Our partners at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (Akin Gump) worked across multiple country offices to help Josephine pursue her former employer for the wages owed to her.

Results came fast. In just a few short months, Akin Gump’s team helped Josephine secure a settlement she was happy with, allowing her to avoid the time and effort of a long court battle.

“For more than 2 years, Josephine struggled to find an NGO that was able to assist with her case because it involved wage theft in another country. While HELP assisted Josephine to lodge a claim in the foreign country, it was immensely difficult to take forward the claim without local support on the ground. Working with Akin Gump’s offices in Hong Kong and the foreign country, we managed to overcome geographical barriers and helped Josephine land back on her feet,” said Justine Lam, Head of JWB’s Hong Kong office.

“Josephine’s persistence was also a key success factor. The employers would have walked away scot-free if Josephine had given up on the case when they disregarded her initial claims. This success really highlights our mission to fight for access to justice for migrant workers, no matter where they are,” continued Justine.

“I have no words to express my gratitude for all the help and support in the legal battle against my ex-employer since 2017. It wasn’t possible for me to get through this battle alone until your organization and partners came forward, like a ray of light in the dark, to help. Indeed, you not only helped me in securing compensation but also to be mentally strong throughout. I would like to extend my hands to all of you for supporting me and others like me,” shared Josephine.

Josephine’s case is just one example of an all too common problem. Addressing unpaid wages and wage theft can require collaboration across multiple countries, and this case shows how it can be done right. With even a month’s salary making the difference between stability and disaster, more collaborations like that between HELP, Akin Gump and JWB can ensure that every worker gets the compensation they are entitled to and need, even after they go home.