The following narrative was constructed by Ratih Kabinawa, based on an interview that she conducted with Dewi Amelia, a migrant labour activist and program assistant at the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM)
I have been involved in women’s activism since I was a university student in the 2000s. At that time, I joined a grassroots organisation that focused on women and gender issues. After participating in various activities within this organisation, I found a strong connection between women and migration, where the majority of Indonesian migrant labourers are female. My activism has led me to engage with many migrant workers’ associations and I began to get involved in their advocacy and campaigns. Most of these female workers come from poor families with low educational backgrounds. Some of them have not even graduated from primary school. While working abroad these workers struggle against precarious working conditions that make them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and violations. These migrant workers inspired me to help empower them, to improve their livelihoods abroad, and protect their rights at work.
I am not a migrant worker, but I always consider myself part of them and their system. When it comes to transnational activism, migrant workers’ associations work collaboratively with NGOs and labour activists. These activists, including myself, have played major roles in facilitating migrant workers’ movements. I have been acting as a trainer for migrant workers’ capacity building and development, an editor for their policy recommendations, and an interpreter for migrant workers’ regional and international meetings. Migrant workers’ movements are fluid and spontaneous, and many are volunteer-based. As a result, many activists are encouraged to multi-task. The Covid-19 pandemic has required an even greater degree of multi-tasking, especially when our activities shifted from offline to online movements.
The pandemic has pushed me to work the extra mile especially in regards to interpreting and training services. With online activism, migrant workers’ associations can expand their outreach and networks abroad. They organised various cross-border online webinars and meetings, and invited international activists and speakers to contribute to these events. Workers and activists that had not been able to participate in previous offline activities due to time and money constraints are now able to join these online platforms. This increased the demand for interpreters. I worked as a two-way interpreter for these international events. Even though this role is not novel to me, I needed to train myself to do it online, particularly for simultaneous interpretation. Being an interpreter for migrant workers is a challenging job as it requires an ability to explain some academic or specific migration terms in an easy-to-understand language. As I mentioned earlier, the different levels of education among migrants required me to use simple language for a general audience. In the end, the main job of an interpreter is to make a bridge for communication and conversational exchange. What is the point of being an interpreter if I can’t achieve this goal?
While working in this job, I also worked at the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) – an NGO based in Hong Kong that aims to support grassroots migrants in the Asian Pacific and the Middle East. I am assigned as a programme assistant for campaigns and advocacy for migrant workers’ movements. Like many other NGOs that actively engage with migrant workers and their associations, APMM also plays a role in facilitating migrant workers’ campaigns, meetings, and coordination at the regional and international levels. We invite workers from various sending countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand. These workers live and work in most of the East Asian and Middle Eastern countries and have established migrant workers’ associations in their receiving countries. By joining this meeting, workers can have opportunities to share their cross-border experiences and working conditions and develop joint statements to respond to their current situations, such as coping with poor working and living conditions during the pandemic. Such joint statements are used to form a policy recommendation and proposed to various stakeholders involved in migrant worker regimes and governance.
The high rate of internet use among migrant workers has also encouraged many NGOs to use social media to organise capacity building and development as well as to run campaigns and advocacy. Our NGO, for example, arranged online training for graphic design, broadcasting, and podcasting for migrant worker activists. It is essential for activists to master these skills and produce their own content for advocacy and campaigns, especially during the pandemic, when everything shifted online. Many migrant workers are also dependent on the use of the internet for their entertainment and it is easier to reach them via social media platforms. As a facilitator for this social media training, I also took the opportunity to participate and learn the skills for my personal digital media content. After attending the training, I created my personal YouTube channel called Obrolan Dewi (Chatting with Dewi). I use my name because I want to have more freedom in deciding the topic and the guest that I would like to invite to my channel. I also utilise this channel to discuss daily and personal issues faced by migrant workers that are often untouched by associations, such as how to deal with divorce paperwork, land deeds, and child custody.
When comparing the effectiveness of offline and online campaigns, both have pros and cons. Living in a pandemic era, online campaigns and meetings can undoubtedly help us stay connected and reach a wider, global audience. When it comes to holding hearings or policy discussions with governments or other stakeholders, online meetings are far from efficient. We sometimes found difficulties in raising our voices or our concerns as everything had been set up before the meeting without much chance to interrupt. You can feel the difference between having a face-to-face meeting compared to an online one, especially when discussing essential policy recommendations. Another drawback of an online campaign is that the target audience is limited to migrant workers. If we organise an offline campaign and go on the streets, for example, we can reach broader audiences. We can introduce our campaign to pedestrians, raising their awareness of migrant workers’ issues and inviting them to join a future event. The offline campaigns tend to be more vivid and lively.
Overall, being part of the migrant workers’ system has taught me many lessons in promoting migrants’ rights and well-being. Most of these people are working longer hours, and thus, are limited in promoting their programmes and advocacy. This paved the way for labour activists and NGOs to fill the void and facilitate migrant workers’ campaigns, meetings, and coordination. If we want to change the world to make it a better place to live, we should start by improving the livelihood of migrant workers and their families. They are the backbone of their family.
Dewi Amelia – Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM)
Ratih Kabinawa – The University of Western Australia