HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- Take a stroll through Hong Kong's downtown Victoria Park on any given Sunday and one can witness a unique social ritual as the city's one million domestic helpers revel in their weekly day off.
Sitting around in garrulous groups; Indonesian and Filipino maids can be seen chatting loudly, picnicking on home-cooked dishes, singing and dancing -- often to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
It's a boisterous, jubilant scene, beyond the dreams of maids around Asia including those in Singapore, who get just one rest day off a month -- if they're lucky.
But life for Hong Kong's migrant workforce is anything but easy. Working hours can be extremely long, and many lack any privacy in the city's cramped flats. Sometimes space is so scarce, maids have to sleep on makeshift beds on kitchen floors.
There also exists in places like Bethune House -- a shelter for migrant helpers -- a seamier world of maids suffering financial exploitation, underpayment, physical abuse and worse.
Tanuj Rai, a gentle, soft-spoken 24-year-old Nepali woman who's been living in Bethune House for the past nine months was abused and blackmailed by her employer.
"I was raped many times. I had no friends," she said.
Tanuj and others in the shelter, have been seeking redress for crimes committed against them, but the slow legal proceedings have left them jobless, poor and in a kind of legal limbo.
"The women are discouraged to lodge complaints because that would mean several months of no wages, so many just go back," said Edwina Antonio-Santoyo, who runs the shelter.
"Only these women are courageous enough to file complaints against their employers," she added.
By Asian standards, maids in Hong Kong are relatively well paid and are protected by labor laws.
But a notable number face widespread financial exploitation by employers and employment agencies, who flout minimum-wage laws with sophisticated under-the-table deals.
Social Workers say many maids work in situations of near "debt-bondage", forced to pay crippling placement fees of up to eight times their monthly salaries. But the Hong Kong government has shirked responsibility for the problem, saying the maids first incurred these debts in their home countries.
"The problem with the Indonesian workers is that they're very innocent, they never have knowledge of law in Hong Kong so they accept what the agency will offer," said Eni Lestari of the Asian Migrant Workers Co-ordinating body.
Wealth and abuse
The migration of workers from poor countries to more affluent ones is illustrative of Asia's gaping wealth gap, with affluent Singapore, like Hong Kong, able to employ maids en masse.
But Singapore, which has around 150,000 helpers, has gained a notoriety for headline-grabbing abuses against its migrant workforce, exacerbated in part, by government inaction.
Dewi Ratih for instance, a 24-year-old Indonesian from Central Java, was beaten repeatedly with a bamboo pole by her employer, who also burned her arms with a clothes iron.
"I was there for only a few weeks... If I had stayed there longer, I might have died," said Dewi, displaying unhealed welts on her arms.
Groups like Human Rights Watch say abuses against maids like Dewi are widespread in Singapore, a situation at odds with the city state's reputation as a wealthy, racially diverse and progressive society.
"They do have the power to enforce many laws and become a model for other countries, but they've remained one of the worst case scenarios," said Nisha Varia, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of a detailed report on the issue.
While Singapore's laws offer better protections than do neighboring countries like Malaysia, maids still face long working hours, pitiful wages and conditions amounting to "forced labor," as well as sexual and verbal harassment, she said.
So far, Singapore's government has been reluctant to grant maids full legal rights. Earlier this year, it made headlines by rejecting calls to give maids a statutory day off every month, arguing this would "inconvenience households."
"I think it's a surprise that the Singapore government isn't taking the necessary steps to change the situation... The changes they've made have been so superficial and none have addressed the root causes of the problem," said Varia.
Back in Hong Kong, there is perhaps an important lesson to be learned -- that progress, while difficult, is possible.
When the first Filipino maids arrived in the late 1970s, they had scant rights. It was only through sustained activism that they become more empowered, winning landmark protections like a minimum wage.
Nowadays, Church groups and increasingly sophisticated support networks are confident enough to fight the government in court and organize mass street protests.
"Nothing was given to us. We had to fight for everything," said Antonio-Santoyo of Bethune house, "It's the painstaking organizing work of the Filipinos who started forming organizations in the mid-'80s."
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