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‘Nothing about Us without Us’: Fighting the fight to speak up for migrant workers at the UN

‘Nothing about Us without Us’: Fighting the fight to speak up for migrant workers at the UN

Isabelle Cockel
University of Portsmouth

The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Kariswen, Chair of Families of Indonesian Migrant Workers / Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia.

When we arrived in New York for the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) meeting held at the UN on 16–20 May 2022, our goal was to speak up on behalf of our fellow migrant workers and their families. It took me 22 years to reach this goal, having first arrived in Hong Kong in 2000 as a domestic worker. I promised myself I would be a domestic worker just for two years, then I would go to university. I have not returned to university, but I have learned a lot since 2000.

In 2000, unlike some of my classmates, I gave up my university scholarship grant. In the years that followed, whilst some of them used their scholarships and became teachers or nurses, I became someone who stands up against brokers’ deceit and defends migrant workers' rights.

My life would not have changed like this had I not joined the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong (ATKI Hong Kong). Established in 2000, ATKI is officially registered and notarised under Hong Kong law, partly thanks to the support of St. John’s Cathedral, which allows us to use their church office as our official address. Working at ATKI gave me links to several organisations, such as International Migrants Alliance (IMA), Asian Migrants Coordinating Body (AMCB), and Asia Pacific Forum on Woman, Law and Development (APWLD). Amongst them, APWLD is a regional organisation, IMA is an international organisation, and, in 2004, we built an alliance with AMCB. The mission is to protect the rights of workers in Hong Kong who are from the Philippines, Thailand, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. In solidarity, we rallied on the street, demanding the Hong Kong government to increase migrant workers’ salary, abolished the Employees’ Retraining Levy (ceased in 2008), and protect migrants’ rights. Besides rallying on the street, we also demanded to have meetings with the Labour Department. We succeeded in securing a statutory right to annual leave and making the Labour Department include ATKI in their annual consultation with unions for the determination of the minimum wage.

Knowing that the Hong Kong government projected us migrant workers as an ‘enemy’ to local workers, we reached out to local labour unions, explaining to them that we were their friends not foes. We organised cultural events to introduce our cuisine to our union colleagues, telling them why Muslims do not eat pork. Working hand in hand, ATKI and local unions campaigned together to request the Hong Kong government to increase our minimum wage. We visited universities and recruited local people as our volunteers. Our joint rallies often took place on the first of July and there were tens of thousands of people, local and foreign, joining and supporting our various appeals. On the streets, we often encountered the associations of agencies, who always tried to discredit our petitions. We tried to win employers away from the influence of agencies; we explained to the former how we were overcharged by agencies and how they were also misinformed by them. AMCB put together their annual rally on the first of May with local unions. They marched to the Central Government Office of Hong Kong, raising their demands.

After spending 11 years in Hong Kong, I returned to Indonesia with my new born baby. Now, I was a returnee. Many returnees are like those I met in Hong Kong, who were reluctant to tell their family about the hardship they had endured, and who, out of fear, were reluctant to tell their employers about the debt caused by the high recruitment fees they owed to their brokers. Yet, some of these former workers joined the rank of brokers and used their knowledge to recruit prospective workers. ‘You’ll earn 8 million rupiah if you work in Hong Kong for one contract!’ was what they often ‘promised’. I did not want to become a broker. I knew well how recruitment agencies made us believe that being obedient to our agencies and employers guaranteed ‘success’ – ‘Don’t be a troublemaker’, they warned us. I knew well that when people are desperate, they trust what brokers tell them - ‘I won’t be so unlucky to be abused’, they believe. I also knew that returnees often encountered challenges in their family life. Some women who have been separated from their children for so long have found that their children call them sister rather than mum. I wanted to help those who would go abroad and those who had returned from abroad.

So I joined ATKI in Indonesia and continued my contacts with APWLD, IMA, and AMCB. In contrast to my transnational contact with these regional and international organisations, I knew less about organisations or institutions in Indonesia. Therefore I visited some,  including the National Commission on Violence against Women (KOMNAS Perempuan), hoping to build a network. My experiences in Hong Kong taught me that the Church could be an ally, too, so I also visited churches, asking them to introduce me to their leaders. We learned that our voices would not be heard if our organisation was not big. So we expanded ATKI to the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Families (Kabar Bumi) in 2015. Kabar Bumi is a member of those regional and international organisations, while I myself am a member of the APWLD’s Migration Programme.

In the past decade, our major campaign appeal was to abolish recruitment fees, which is rooted in Law No. 39 adopted by the Indonesian government in 2004. This requires prospective workers to use an agency for overseas employment. Early this year, with the help of workers and activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan who provided street scene footages in their locality, we published an educational video about the long-lasting impact of the confiscation of migrant workers’ documents. The impact is long-lasting because some of them, like marriage certificates or education certificates will never be replaced by the government. Losing such important papers is devastating for many. During the pandemic, we ran online meetings and workshops to help our members cope with home schooling. In the wake of the pandemic, people became poorer and, driven by poverty, they would grab any opportunities. As a result, the incidence of human trafficking, labour trafficking, sex trafficking and child trafficking surged, with some cases also involving drug dealing. Our current goal is to reach out to every village. Many people wanted to go abroad, but they did not know that the Indonesian government had suspended recruitment from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, and have yet to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Australia. Yet, brokers are recruiting people to go to Malaysia and Australia!

This happened to a single mother whom I tried to dissuade from going to Malaysia. I told her what would happen to her: she would be taken to Jakarta, from Jakarta to Batam, and from there, she would go to Kuala Lumpur. Since there was no legal recruitment between Malaysia and Indonesia, she would not have a work permit and she would stay in Malaysia on a tourist visa. She would become an undocumented worker. Nevertheless, she ignored my advice. All she could think was: I want to get a job; I want people to see me as successful; I’ll be lucky, I’ll be successful. Sadly, the very bad economic situation in Indonesia had forced her to look for jobs abroad and made her a victim of human trafficking. She desperately tried to get in touch with a friend and asked them to contact us. Since we had previously informed her, and she had contact numbers for us and for the embassy, she knew how to get help. However, we noticed that if workers seek help from the embassy, the latter is usually unresponsive. They may be more active if the case is referred by us. We are a bridge between the government and the workers, and we push the government to shoulder their responsibility of protect Indonesian workers.

With many years of experience in this field, I have learned that if we want to achieve anything, we      have to try and be persistent. If not, nothing will come of our efforts. This is what happened to us after we arrived in New York for the IMRF meeting. I joined the IMA delegation and APWLD funded the trip for me and another two delegates. Equipped with our report and ready to present, we arrived in New York, but we did not have any information regarding who would be allowed to present, even though we had already registered to      do so. We asked around but nobody knew whether there was an opportunity to share our report. We protested at the UN Secretary-General Office. Asia Pacific Mission for Migration (APMM) was allowed to deliver a speech and what their delegate said was ‘I’m here with the IMA team, who comprises of migrant workers and returned migrant workers. Please let them speak for themselves.’ In the afternoon of that day, suddenly, our names were called. They did not inform us beforehand. They just called our names and said each of us was given two      minutes to talk. There were eight of us, so roughly a total of 20 minutes was allocated to us. My talk included the issue of document confiscation. We were glad that in the end, we could talk to the leaders from around the world.

However, this process was discriminatory and unfair to us. The UN recognises that it is difficult for migrant workers to speak for themselves and sports the slogan ‘Nothing about Us without Us’. However, had we not protested, we would not have been invited to speak for ourselves; only government officials and businesses leaders attending the IMRF meeting were invited to talk. We campaigned to speak up for migrants and their families, because we believed ‘Nothing about Migrants without Migrants. ’ This international forum that was meant to address migration issues excluded us and we had to fight our way in. The trip to New York was very expensive: one person cost $ 6,000-7,000, which included a visa fee, flight, transport, accommodation, and meals. In New York, one night’s accommodation cost more than $500. We don’t have that much money! Had it not been APWLD’s support, we would never be able to go. This is why we criticised the UN. We hope our criticism has been heard and the next IMRF meeting will include migrant workers and give us space. 

A new international effort to improve migrants’ rights, the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), is being suggested. Indonesia is one of the ‘Champion Countries’ invited to implement the GCM. But the Indonesian delegation to the IMRF meeting did not release its own country statement about its position on adopting GCM. It only released a joint statement with other champion countries. Not many organisations in Indonesia know about GCM. We are forming an alliance to raise public awareness about it. We will continue to monitor whether and how the Indonesian government will adopt the GCM. We have to try to get recognition and responses through campaigning, petitioning and demonstrating.


Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.

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