Hong Kong and Singapore face a day without Indonesian domestic workers

Earlier this month, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, started quite a stir, especially in the Middle East and East Asia, when he announced plans to limit and then stop the migration of live-in domestic workers. The President argued that much of the abuse of young Indonesian women stemmed from their working in informal, unregulated sectors, and that that has to stop. Indonesia wants those who work as domestic workers overseas to live in their own quarters, to work regular hours, and to enjoy one day off each week and public holidays. This is big news, on a scale of Los Angeles imagining a day without Mexicans.

Indonesia provides Singapore with most of its domestic workers. Currently 125,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Singapore, the overwhelming majority as live-in. 50,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Malaysia, and 150,000 work in Hong Kong. According to the Indonesian government, of the more than 7 million Indonesians working abroad, 60% are domestic workers. That’s over 4.2 million women, a lot of women and a lot of money.

Not surprisingly, employers in the receiving nations are `lukewarm’. Indonesian women workers’ groups argue that the solution to the problem of abuse of domestic workers overseas is for the State to actually protect them, rather than cut off their freedom of movement. While the President talks of national shame and dignity, women workers’ groups argue for decent work and more protections.

Where everyone is in agreement is that abuse of Indonesian, and other transnational, domestic workers is rampant. The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, two years ago, sparked more than mass mobilizations. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih had gone to Hong Kong to work so as to be able to attend university. After eight months of torture, she was dumped at the airport and sent back to Indonesia. The sight of her damaged body sparked outrage. Two years later, she says, “I still have problems breathing. I cannot go swimming because I cannot get water into my ears. And I still have the scars. I need to see the doctor from time to time.”

The abuse of domestic workers is as old as domestic work itself, as is the work of organizing among domestic workers. What’s new is the transnational. That has meant, on one hand, that domestic workers, especially live-in domestic workers, are radically, viciously isolated, often with no place to go. In many countries, that lack of place is codified by labor and migration laws. These women are beaten by their bosses and trapped by State policy. Additionally, it takes money to travel, obtain visas and work permits, and to find employment. That means overseas domestic workers necessarily incur large debts. They are trapped in indebtedness. They are beaten by the bosses and trapped by international fiscal and monetary policy.

The domestic workers of this not-so-new neoliberal world order engage in domestic work largely because they want to use the money for the future, and the jobs available at home are too few and too low paying. For the past decades, this scam has been run to the fill the coffers of the sending nation-States, through remittances, and of the receiving nation-States, by subsidizing the entire care industry. People in Hong Kong are wondering who will pay for childcare, eldercare, home health care and so much more if the Indonesians really do vanish and, even more, if the Philippines national government follows suit? From Hong Kong to Singapore and beyond, people really are beginning to imagine a day without Indonesians.

Around the world, women domestic workers are organizing. They’re pushing for Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights in the United States and in Kuwait. They’re organizing domestic workers’ unions in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re mobilizing everywhere. Most South American countries have ratified the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania domestic workers’ unions are on the move. The time to end the super-exploitation of domestic workers occurred decades, centuries, ago, but now is the time to support their efforts to end the global household plantation system. This is the story of women breaking the chains, locally and globally, of bondage, old and new, and seizing and creating power for themselves, collectively, in the name of women’s dignity. My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and I am unafraid. Justice for all!

 

(Photo and Video Credit: You Tube)

Emebet Mono Bezabh, another warrior in women’s struggles for emancipation and power

 

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh

Emebet Mono Bezabh worked for two years as a live-in maid working for the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand. According to her reports, the diplomat and his wife regularly beat and starved her. They made her sleep with the family dog, and they treated her as “less than an animal”, which is to say they treated her like a slave. On Monday, an out-of-court settlement between Emebet Mono Bezabh and her `employers’ was reached.

Emebet Mono Bezabh was brought to Thailand from Ethiopia. Her employers are Ethiopian. Emebet Mono Bezabh is twenty-five years old. She was orphaned at the age of five. She has little to no formal education, and is deemed illiterate, but she knows something about justice: “This money doesn’t make up for what they’ve done to me.”

A year ago, today, we wrote about Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was beaten and starved almost to death. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, “My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

Emebet Mono Bezabh’s case was finally exposed through the unity of the women’s movements in Thailand, where she was supported by the Foundation for Women, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Lawyers Council of Thailand. That was the story last year, it’s the story this year, and it most likely will be the story next year, same time: the solidarity of women workers breaking through the chains of domestic hyper-exploitation, violence, oppression, and slavery.

There is no room to be surprised, yet again, by the violence of domestic workers’ employers. It’s time to recognize the histories of struggle by domestic workers, in unions and associations, in courts and on the streets. Women workers’ ongoing and historic struggle for emancipation and power is the story. Pass it on.

 

(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

 

Gloria Kente

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: IOL / Jeffrey Abrahams) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih

Over the weekend, hundreds of feminist and women’s rights organizations and networks gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Asia Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing+20. Participants strategized, organized, talked and listened. They listened to former domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Here’s what Erwiana said:

“My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. I am 23 years old, and come from a poor peasant family of Indonesia and am a former domestic worker from Hong Kong. I did my high school and then wanted to go to the University, but because my family had no money for this I started working as a restaurant service worker in Jakarta. The pay was very low. I still dreamt of going to the University because with a graduation degree it would be easier for me to find a good job. As I really wanted to bring a change in my life, and the pay in Jakarta was not enough I decided to be a migrant worker abroad.

“I chose Hong Kong because it is said to be a safe country and I had heard no news about migrant workers being abused there. So I applied through a private recruitment agency and I stayed in a training centre for 8 months and finally I flew to Hong Kong in 2013. When I arrived in Hong Kong all my papers, such as my passport and employment contract, were taken by my agency and I began working as a domestic help. My employer was very rude, beat me up, would only let me sleep only for 4 hours a day and did not give me sufficient food to eat. I was not allowed to go out or speak with other people or use the telephone. So I decided to run away from her. I called up the agency in Hong Kong for help. But they told me to go back to the employer’s house. 8 months of abuse and torture left my body badly bruised and in pain. So one day she decided to send me back to Indonesia. She brought me to the airport, helped me check-in, and then left. She threatened to kill my family if I ever spoke of my plight to any other person. Abandoned at the airport and unable to walk, I luckily met an Indonesian lady who not only helped me reach home but also took a photograph of my injuries and posted it on her Facebook.

“Finally my case was taken up by the Indonesian Network of Migrant Workers and Asian Migrant Workers’ Coordinating Body to fight for justice for me. Around 5000 people marched on the streets of Hong Kong demanding justice, and finally the Hong Kong government took up my case. My case is under investigation and the trial will be held in December next month (December 2014) in Hong Kong.

“The system enforced by my own government and Hong Kong government has made me suffer this way. In my orientation done at the training centre I was not given any information about my rights and about the justice system in Hong Kong. There is no direct hiring and we are given only 14 days to stay after visa termination and have to leave to re-apply if we want to find another job. These unjust government policies damage our lives as migrant workers. It is not only me who has suffered exploitation, but there are thousands of migrant workers who get into similar situations and are forced to stay in silence”.

“My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

When Erwiana left Hong Kong, she weighed around 55 pounds. She was covered with burns and scars. She was so weak and injured she couldn’t walk. How could an injured, incapacitated woman pass through immigration without any officer wondering about her condition? The Immigration Department’s Director explained: “It is difficult to judge whether there were injuries because of her complexion. We cannot blame the officer.”

We cannot blame the officer … because of her complexion. This is the complexion of violence against women workers that empowers employers to torture and inspires the State to pretend to look the other way while academics and pundits go on about the `invisible workforce.’ There is no invisible workforce. Women workers are part of an altogether visible and public regime of violence that airbrushes the scars, bruises and burns, and then declares itself blame free. The women know better, and that’s why they flooded the streets of Hong Kong and will do so again.

 

(Photo Credit: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post)