The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Sringatin, Chair of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU) in Hong Kong.
I am from Surabaya, East Java. Before I left for Hong Kong, I applied for jobs in my hometown. With only a high school diploma, it was difficult to find a job that would give me a decent salary. As a result, I started working abroad in 2002. We can go to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, or the Middle East. If we go to the Middle East, we have to learn to speak Arabic. I came to Hong Kong and have worked in Hong Kong for the same employer to this day. My sister was also working in Hong Kong. She returned to Indonesia in 2019 but she’s come back to Hong Kong now. After having worked in Hong Kong for nearly two decades, I now speak English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
I have been away from home for almost 20 years. I realised that what happened to me – lacking education and finding it difficult to get a job – also happened to other migrant workers. My family are rice farmers but we don’t own any land. We sell a small amount of rice but the price is affected by the market and what we sell is not enough to pay our living costs. My sister and I send money home for the cost of everyday life and our children’s education. I do not see any signs that would make me think there is a real prospect of change for better. I don’t think my sister has seen any difference between now and then.
Before migrant workers receive a contract and go abroad, they have to stay at a recruitment agency, which charges us for training and lodging at their place. On average, one would stay there between three and six months. Some may stay up to one year. Experienced workers would stay between one and three months. However, agencies do not take into account whether a worker has been abroad many times when they charge their fees. Living conditions in the agency have not changed in the past 20 years, but agencies do not care about this. All they want is to make money out of us migrant workers. Agencies in Jakarta give contraceptive injections to migrant women; some agencies in Hong Kong do this, too. They just want to make sure migrant workers can complete their contract so they can get money out of these workers via deductions. Paying recruitment fees via monthly salary deduction is a big problem. The total amount of money we have to pay to agencies does not change but the monthly deduction seems to get higher and higher, after taking into account interest rates and foreign currency exchange rates. This increased monthly deduction is an exploitation of migrant workers, as reported by our survey.
People like me who have been working abroad can become trainers or brokers. I do not know how much a trainer is paid by the agency, but I know what kind of sacrifice we have gone through. It is very painful to see how people make money out of others like that. Doing such things does not make people happy so I do not want to become a broker. Instead, I tell my family and neighbours about overseas work and the process one has to go through to work abroad. I particularly look out for newcomers because it is not easy for them to access information. I give them an emergency number in case they need to contact us. I think now more people in my village believe what I say. I cannot disseminate such information at the agency. They do not like experienced workers to go to the agency. They will tell trainees not to get in touch with experienced workers.
After migrant workers arrive in Hong Kong, they stay at their employer’s home. That is where they become isolated, since there are no other people around and they do not have easy access to information. There is an imbalance of information between migrant workers and their employers. Migrant workers can register themselves with the Indonesian Consulate, but this is not mandatory. If the agencies take them to the Consulate and register, then they will be registered. If the agencies do not bother, then they do not exist in the government’s records.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a real prospect for abolishing recruitment agencies. In Hong Kong it is employers who are responsible for documentation expenses when hiring domestic workers. However, this makes it very expensive for employers to hire domestic workers. This has, in turn, become a dilemma. Nonetheless, as long as agencies ask for a huge amount in recruitment fees, regardless of whether the fee is paid by migrant workers or by employers, it is unfair for both of them. In Hong Kong, migrant workers can be employed by the same employers without using an agency, and this reduces the room for exploitation. The problem is that the application form is difficult, and it takes a long time to complete. On the other hand, the Indonesian government has never been really interested in reforming the system. The Indonesian government organises orientation sessions for migrant workers before they leave for overseas work. They tell migrant workers to register with their agencies after arrival. In a sense, the government actually relegates the protection of migrant workers to agencies.
The Basic Law grants workers the right to join or establish a union. In 1999 IMWU became the first Indonesian migrant domestic worker union to be registered in the Registry of Trade Unions in Hong Kong. We reach out to migrant workers and educate them about their rights in Hong Kong. I tell them that every Sunday, no matter what, we are in Victoria Park. The Trafficking in Persons Report is a publicly available source of information. The Hong Kong government is concerned with it, but whether we will be consulted really depends on the government. If the government approaches us about our views on trafficking and related issues, we’ll be very happy to provide our views.
We meet at Victoria Park regularly. Our regular presence has been even more important during the pandemic, which hit migrant workers badly. After the Hong Kong government issued the ‘work from home’ order, our job became more stressful financially, psychologically and mentally. We provided sanitisers, food, facemasks and test kits, and we also helped people cope with stress. The provision of these materials by the employer is mandatory, but it is very difficult to enforce these regulations. If our employers didn’t provide them for us, we couldn’t report them to the government, because if we did that, we would lose our jobs and couldn’t stay in Hong Kong; after all, we are temporary residents in Hong Kong. Information about Covid-19 was given at press conferences or via live streaming on social media. It’s not easy for us to access this information, partly because it is either in English or in Chinese, not in Indonesian. Lack of translation is a major problem. We are the organisation that has contact with migrant workers, but the government did not pass information to us. We requested it but it did not happen. On the other hand, the Indonesian government remained as unresponsive as before. It did not respond to our requests so there i s no help from our own government. As for the Hong Kong government, financial support schemes are only available for Hong Kong Residents.
During the pandemic, some Indonesian workers left for their homes, and they returned for good; they did not want to come back to Hong Kong. There were also those who got stranded in Hong Kong. This is because it’s become more difficult to find a job in Hong Kong under the new regulations, including negotiating quarantine regulations, and quarantine fees also makes it more expensive. We tell migrant workers they should protect themselves and know their rights. However, we should also strengthen our networking and solidarity, because everyone is affected by Covid-19. This is the time to look after each other. It is also the time to speak to the government about our rights.
Returning home and being reunited with our families is our dream. Hong Kong is a place for work. If the employer does not want to continue to hire us, they will find another domestic worker, so we can be asked to leave at any time. It is difficult for me to think about the future. I do not want to think too much. I just want to continue to work and help others with my experiences and my knowledge as much as I can. I love to help others.
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.