Baby Jane Allas, Moe Moe Than, Milagros Tecson Comilang, Desiree Rante Luis: Today’s faces of abuse of domestic workers

Mary Ann Allas and Baby Jane Allas

In 2014, former domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih stood before a gathering of women and gave witness to the horrors she had endured: “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 chose Hong Kong because it is said to be a safe country and I had heard no news about migrant workers being abused there.” Hong Kong was not, is not, safe. Over the last month a number of women domestic workers’ stories have emerged that demonstrate both the spectacular brutality of households and the structural brutality of nation-State. These are the stories of Baby Jane Allas, Moe Moe Than, Milagros Tecson Comilang, Desiree Rante Luis.

Baby Jane Allas arrived in Hong Kong in late 2017. She left behind five children. In early 2019, Baby Jane Allas was diagnosed with third-stage cervical cancer. She took medical leave, as is her right under Hong Kong law. On February 17, while on leave, she received a letter from her employers terminating her contract. Along with the loss of job, this also meant loss of access to public medical care. That letter was a slow death sentence. Baby Jane Allas, and her sister Mary Ann Allas, also a domestic worker in Hong Kong, organized. They raised money for medical care. They sued, under both labor law and disability laws. The case is still ongoing, but supporters already note that there were many `irregularities’ in the hearing. Baby Jane Allas reported that her stay of employment was one abuse and violation of law and rights after another, but she needed the job. She’s a single mother of five children. 

Moe Moe Than’s story is one of spectacular cruelty, the “worst of its kind”, according to a judge. 32-year-old Moe Moe Than arrived in Singapore from Myanmar in 2012. She worked for a couple that refused her food, access to the toilet, time off and worse. At one point, when complained about the quality and quantity of food, the couple forced fed Moe Moe Than, and when she vomited, the forced her to eat her vomit. Her employers beat her regularly and forced her to clean in her underwear. All of that occurred in 2012. In March, seven years later, the couple was sentenced to time in prison and to compensation. This same couple was convicted of abusing an Indonesian maid, in 2017, and never served any time in prison.

Finally, there are the cases of Milagros Tecson Comilang and Desiree Rante Luis, both former domestic workers from the Philippines. Milagros Tecson Comilang arrived in Hong Kong in 1997. In 2005, she married a permanent Hong Kong resident. In 2007, she gave birth to a daughter. Comilang and her husband have since divorced, and he refused to support her application to stay. Desiree Rante Luis arrived in Hong Kong in 1991. She has three sons, all permanent Hong Kong residents, but Desiree Rante Luis had to leave, and has only seen her family while on a tourist visa. She also applied for permanent residence status. In the case of Milagros Tecson Comilang the child’s father doesn’t want to care for his child. In the case of Desiree Rante Luis, the father is a live-in domestic worker, and so can’t care for his children. This week, the court decided that both women have to leave Hong Kong and leave their children behind. Desiree Rante Luis said, “We have been waiting for a long time. I don’t know why the Hong Kong government has no heart.”

Why do the Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and so many other, governments have no heart for transnational women? It’s a good question. Here’s another good question: “Each page a victory/At whose expense the victory ball?” Bertolt Brecht asked that in 1936. It’s now 2019, 83 years later. Baby Jane Allas, Moe Moe Than, Milagros Tecson Comilang, and Desiree Rante Luis join Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Adelina LisaoTuti Tursilawati, and so many others whose names we wait to learn. We need more than an archaeology of contemporary household atrocities. We need justice. We need justice which begins at home.  We have been waiting for a long time. 

Desiree Rante Luis and her sons

(Photo Credit 1: South China Morning Post / Xiaomei Chen) (Photo Credit 2: South China Morning Post / Edmond So)

Nancy Almorin Lubiano challenges Hong Kong’s live-In maid rule

 

For migrant domestic workers living in Hong Kong, live-in work continues to be one of the most precarious forms of work. In a new court hearing, lawyers for Nancy Almorin Lubiano, a domestic worker from the Philippines, are challenging Hong Kong’s live-in domestic rule that could affect her and 350,000 other women.

Lubiano’s lawyers are suggesting that the rule, put in place since 2003, is unconstitutional because “it heightened the risk of breaching the fundamental rights of helpers, violating international charters.”

Hong Kong’s regime originally had a more liberal stance for workers, which allowed domestic workers to provide outside living accommodations, so long as they had their employers’ permission. A year before the rule was put into place, of the city’s 200,000 maids, 100 worked as live-out employees.

Today, the rule that mandates live-in domestic help face the consequence of, “administrative sanctions in future applications for a visa or employment, and criminal prosecution over charges such as furnishing false information, which is punishable by a HK$150,000 fine and 14 years’ imprisonment.” Domestic workers face extreme precarity being forced to live in the home of their employers, always at the beck and call of their employers, and anyone attempting to flee a dangerous situation could be moved from one prison to the next.

For live-in domestic workers residing in Hong Kong, risk is ever present. According to Lubiano’s lawyers, “Key findings by Shieh included an average of 71.4 working hours per week, with more than one in three respondents deprived of their weekly 24-hor rest day as required by law. Another 40 per cent were deprived of independent rooms, some of them exposed to the rest of the household while sleeping in corridors, kitchens, and even beds above toilets.” Lubiano was given a 60 sq. ft. storeroom in a 640 sq. ft. flat shared with a family of three; because it was a storeroom Lubiano was never given privacy, since her employers had access to the room at all times. If maids in situations like Lubiano desired to leave an abusive employers, they would only have two weeks to find another employer before they are forced to leave the city.

The arguments made by Lubiano’s lawyer, Paul Shieh Shing-tai, calls the case “a challenge to the system…saying the government should not interfere with foreign maids’ private life just to achieve the purpose of monitoring and maintaining security.”

While the case is being heard by the courts, based solely on the constitutionality of the rule, the 350,000 domestic workers will live and work in a state of limbo, continuing to work in a state of insecurity. Reports illustrate that domestic workers are victims of “a range of exploitative practices that would meet the internationally recognized definitions of forced labour and trafficking.”

Lubiano and Shieh have a very narrow legal challenge for the live-in rule, as contended by Shieh himself, but the verdict of the rule has large implications for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. The ability to be given the choice to live out, as opposed to the powerlessness that some feel living in their employers’ home would mean the ability to have an escape from abuse and exploitation, and the end of a 24-hour on-call workday.

(Photo Credit: Hong Kong Free Press)

 

What happened to Sophia Rhianne Dulluog? Just another domestic worker falling from the sky

 


On the first Sunday of September, domestic workers and their allies marched in the streets of the city center of Hong Kong, chanting, “We are workers, not slaves!” 35-year-old Sophia Rhianne Dulluog, a Filipina domestic “helper”, was nowhere to be seen and yet everywhere. On August 9, Sophia Rhianne Dulluog was cleaning the outside of the windows of her employer’s apartment in a high rise building. She fell to her death: “No suicide note was reportedly found, and there were no suspicious circumstances. The police has classified her death as caused by `falling from a height’. Dulluog, who hailed from Santiago, Isabela, was a single mother to a 10-year-old boy. She arrived in Hong Kong three years ago.” The report language is flat because the incident is absolutely ordinary. In March 18, a 47-year-old Filipina worker working in the same neighborhood as Sophia Rhianne Dulluog fell to her death. In the past year, at least four other domestic workers have died, in Hong Kong, from “work accidents or suicide”. Those deaths were neither accident nor suicide. They were murder, and given the victims, femicide.

None of this is new. Domestic workers, such as Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, struggle daily and organize to end the spectacular as well as casual violence employers heap on domestic workers. Domestic workers, such as Evangeline Banao Vallejos, struggle daily and organize to end the structural, exclusionary violence the State piles on transnational domestic workers. In public and in private, domestic workers have organized for decent work, dignity, and democracy. They have done so for decades, and they are doing so today.

And yet women like Sophia Rhianne Dulluog are falling from the sky to their deaths, and for what? For the windows to be cleaned? As a spokesperson for the Asian Migrants Co-ordinating Body noted, “Cleaning windows from the outside is not a domestic worker’s duty. It’s a responsibility of the building management.” And there it is. It’s cheaper to have domestic workers clean the outside of windows than the building management, and if a few die in the process, that’s the collateral damage of global urban development. After all, Sophia Rhianne Dulluog didn’t have to come to Hong Kong, she chose to. Right?

The domestic worker protesters called for an increase in the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers. Meanwhile, almost 72 percent are paid less than the minimum wage. The law says employers have to provide “suitable accommodation.” Close to 40 percent do not have their own room. Many live in “boxes”, “dog houses.” Employers are supposed to provide either free food or a food allowance. For many, that’s not happening.

None of this is new. The global political economy has been built on the acceptability and necessity of expendable slaves, and dogs, among us. They are meant to be the walking embodiment of social death and death-in-life. Other than their capacity as super-exploited labor, they are less than nothing. That’s why domestic workers’ struggles for decent work, dignity and democracy are crucial, because, while they are not the wooden shoes in the global machinery, they are the ones who wear and throw those shoes.

What happened to Sophia Rhianne Dulluog? Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, just another domestic worker falling from the sky. “No suicide note was reportedly found, and there were no suspicious circumstances.”

 

 

(Photo Credit: Coconuts Hong Kong / Loryjean Yungco)

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)

 

Will the murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih be a wake-up call?

 


In the early morning hours of November 1, 29-year-old British securities trader Rurik Jutting called police officers to his apartment in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Inside, they discovered a gruesome scene: 29-year-old Seneng Mujiasih lying naked on the floor with fatal knife wounds, and a suitcase containing the mutilated remains of 23-year-old Sumarti Ningsih who had been killed several days earlier. Jutting has since been charged with both murders.

Jutting’s privileged background and successful financial career and Wan Chai’s reputation as the home of Hong Kong’s sex industry have contributed to this incident being reported as a tabloid-style story of sex, betrayal and murder, not unlike the 1991 American novel-turned-movie American Psycho. But this narrative does grave injustice to the lives of Mujiasih and Ningsih – two migrant workers from Indonesia, and it ignores the economic, social and legal pressures threatening the lives of women like them worldwide.

Seneng Mujiasih, who also went by Jesse Lorena, came to Hong Kong in 2010 as a domestic worker on a two-year visa. Thirteen months in, her employer terminated her contract and she was given the standard two weeks to leave the city. Mujiasih couldn’t afford to go home due to outstanding debt owed to the recruitment agency she had to use to secure employment, and returning home to find a new placement meant she’d have to take on more debt through the same flawed process. According to a friend, that’s when she turned to sex work.

Sumarti Ningsih came to Hong Kong on a tourist visa that was about to expire. She was the second youngest of four children and sole breadwinner for her family in Indonesia, including her five-year-old son. She left her son in the care of her parents after her marriage ended and her family struggled to buy food and basic necessities. According to her father, Ningsih spent time as a domestic worker and a waitress in Hong Kong and had been living in the city intermittently for the past few years to support her family and pay for her son’s education.

Both women were last seen in Wan Chai, a popular drinking spot for foreigners and businessmen that has numerous “sex bars.” That backdrop led to early reports that Mujiasih and Ningsih were among the 100,000 people who work in Hong Kong’s sex industry. Family and friends deny this, and claims to the contrary have yet to be substantiated, but that’s a mere afterthought in much of the media coverage. In fact, the possibility that the women were sex workers is being used to define them and thereby diminish the significance of their deaths.

Whether Mujiasih and Ningsih were sex workers is irrelevant. First and foremost, they were women – human beings – who were trying to support their families. If they chose or were forced to turn to sex work to do so, that’s no excuse for murder, especially when prostitution is legal in Hong Kong. Sex workers can legally solicit clients at bars, but they have to leave the premises to have sex. Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have called attention to how vulnerable and unprotected that leaves the city’s largely migrant and female workforce.

Mujiasih’s and Ningsih’s deaths have also brought to light the relationship between domestic and sex work in Hong Kong. It’s not unusual for the city’s domestic workers to get pulled into the sex industry as a way to supplement their meager wages, or because employers’ actions – usually termination of a contract or abusive practices – leave them without homes or incomes. Hong Kong requires that domestic workers live in the homes in which they work, effectively tying them and their ability to stay in the city to their employers.

Recruitment and placement agencies also play a major role. Indonesia requires that those seeking work abroad go through such agencies, and both Mujiasih and Ningsih did so. According to a 2013 report on Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong, these agencies use “deception and coercion to recruit Indonesian migrants and to compel them to work” in dangerous situations, including “confiscation of identity documents, restrictions on freedom of movement and the manipulation of debt incurred through recruitment fees.”

Clearly, a combination of policies and social and economic pressures in Indonesia and Hong Kong position migrant workers like Mujiasih and Ningsih as prime targets for exploitation, abuse and death. Domestic worker and spokesperson for the Asian Migrant Coordinating Body, Eni Lestari, has criticized both Indonesia and Hong Kong for their “exploitative migration policies.” She chides Indonesia for failing to take responsibility while actively supporting and benefitting from a deceitful and harmful system.

Lestari is referring to the benefits countries that send workers overseas reap from the money workers send home. These workers, such as Mujiasih and Ningsih, work abroad because of economic hardship, lack of jobs or insufficient wages at home. Thus, Indonesia fails its people at home, knowingly requires them to use agencies that exploit them when they seek opportunities elsewhere, and offers them no protection while gone – and then profits from their mistreatment.

Nearly half of domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian, and stories of abuse are familiar to either government. Recently, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong made headlines for escaping her employers after two years of imprisonment and despicable torture. In January, TIME called Indonesian domestic workers “Hong Kong’s ‘modern-day slaves.’” Two-thirds of Indonesian domestic workers interviewed for a 2013 report said they were physically or psychologically abused while in Hong Kong.

Systemic abuse isn’t news to the public either. At a vigil honoring Mujiasih and Ningsih, attendees held signs demanding changes in Hong Kong’s and Indonesia’s laws. The event drew more than 100 Indonesians and was held in a park that domestic workers frequent on their days off. Its message made clear that people in Hong Kong, especially Indonesians, recognize the forces behind the murders and the community the women represent. Comments from friends, domestic workers and sex workers reinforce that sense of community and shared experience.

The murders of Seneng Mujiasih and Sumarti Ningsih are a chilling reminder of the plight of domestic workers worldwide. While Jutting’s guilt may not officially be determined for some time, there are others to blame. Real justice for Mujiasih and Ningsih requires action on the part of all those involved to make sure no other women are subjected to the same fate.

 

(Photo Credit: Sunday Express / EPA)

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)

Migrant and immigrant women workers want democracy, too!

 

Can migrant and immigrant workers demand democracy, and if they do, who will listen? This question arises, again, out of the news coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which has demonstrated an ambivalence, if not an anxiety, about where immigrant domestic workers fit in, or not, in the Umbrella Revolution. At heart, the problem is that many find it difficult to understand that migrant and immigrant women workers, domestic workers, “helpers” want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

Hong Kong boasts one of the highest densities of domestic workers in the world. The overwhelming majority are Filipina and Indonesian. They are famously underworked, overpaid, and often suffer the full gamut of abuse. They are also organized, into various national-ethnic associations as well as into pan-Asian domestic workers’ associations, most notably the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body. Typically, the “news” about these women is [1] a story of abuse, [2] a story of seeking higher wages, [3] a story of getting slightly higher wages, and then the cycle begins again.

Abuse and wages pretty much cover the “domestic worker” front. And that’s why the Occupy Hong Kong protests have caused a ripple in the surface of the common sense. Where are the maids in Occupy Hong Kong? Where are domestic workers in the struggle for democracy?

Everywhere: “On 29 September, the first day of the general strike, unions representing dock workers, bus drivers, beverage workers, social workers, domestic workers, migrant domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, radio producers, and teachers took to the streets. They are not only protesting against the police suppression of the students. They are not only campaigning for universal suffrage. They are also demonstrating a more down-to-earth wish: social justice.”

Domestic workers, like 60-year-old Filipina domestic worker Vicky Casia, understand that political as well as economic wealth and well being in Hong Kong depend on the labor of migrant women workers: “We are proud of what they are doing right now. This is history. It would be another achievement for us, if soon they would also include in their fight the rights for migrant workers.”

Domestic workers were at the demonstrations, openly, proudly and happily, as their photos show. Likewise, domestic workers formally supported the protesters: “The Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), is one with the people of Hong Kong in condemning the brutal response of the Hong Kong government, through its Police Force, to the protest – predominantly youth and students – calling for full universal suffrage in choosing the city’s Chief Executive … The movement for universal suffrage has been gaining steam for the past years and is further being propelled by the government’s lack of effective response to the problems besetting many of the Hong Kong people. Cuts in social service, disregard of the condition of workers, and the prioritization of the government of the interests of businesses, especially in times of crisis have contributed greatly to the desire of the HK people to have a more direct say in the election of the Chief Executive …The right of the people to assemble and protest is being wantonly violated; and activists for democratic rights cannot stand by and watch … We are one with the people of Hong Kong in the call to stop the repression against their democratic rights. We call for the immediate release of the arrested protesters. We call for the HK government to respect the people’s rights … We extend our solidarity to those who uphold the people’s rights and democracy.”

Migrant and immigrant women workers want it all: decent work, dignity, and democracy.

 

(Photo Credit: Varsity CHUK / Common Dreams)

Evangeline Banao Vallejos will not go gentle into that flight

Evangeline Banao Vallejos won a “landmark decision” today in Hong Kong. It was a women’s victory, and hopefully not temporary, in the War on Women. She won the right to abode, the right to stay, the right to permanent residency. She won the right to be, the right to live with her family, the right to unpack her bags and stop living in fear.

According to the law in Hong Kong, non-Chinese who have entered Hong Kong with a valid travel document, have stayed in Hong Kong for seven continuous years, and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence have the right of abode. That is, they can become permanent residence, with all the protections and privileges that allows.

Unless they’re domestic workers. Another law excludes foreign domestic workers, officially called “foreign domestic helpers”, from becoming permanent residents … ever. Hong Kong has a little under 300,000 foreign domestic workers, the vast majority of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia. The rest come from Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong totals around 7.1 million residents. That means 4% or so of those living in Hong Kong are foreign domestic workers.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos went to Hong Kong, from the Phillipines, in 1986, and has worked, continuously, for the same employer since 1987. In 2008, Vallejos applied for permanent residency and was rejected. In 2010, she applied for judicial review of the law that excludes foreign domestic workers from being … ordinary people. She is not alone in her cause. Organizations, such as the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body and United Filipinos in Hong Kong, have supported her case.

Other foreign domestic workers are also suing for admission into the world of ordinary people. Irene Domingo, for example, arrived in Hong Kong, from the Philippines, in 1982 and, except for a brief period where she had to wait for a visa, has lived in Hong Kong continuously ever since. Josephine Gutierrez has been working and living continuously in Hong Kong for twenty years. Ordinary women seeking the status of the ordinary.

Here’s how, by law, the “extraordinary” are treated. Foreign domestic workers are subject to two-year employment contracts. They must live in the homes of their employers. They cannot bring in their spouses or children. This is the price of being extraordinary in the midst of the “miracle” of economic growth. For women in the global economy, being extraordinary means being disposable, deportable.

What is the threat constituted by Filipina women, by Indonesian women? Flood. Influx. That’s how the State, that’s how the media, describe the possible consequences of treating foreign domestic workers as anything but ordinary women. Give them rights and they will flood the labor market. Recognize their ordinary humanity and a flood, a tsunami, of “others” – family members – will come crashing down on the island city.

Evangeline Banao Vallejo. Irene Domingo. Josephine Gutierrez. These are not the names of tropical floods. They are the names of terrifically ordinary women workers who haunt the world economy. And for now, they’re staying put.

 

(Photo Credit: AP / Asian Correspondent)