Thursday, May 29, 2014

Calls for better treatment of migrant workers in Hong Kong

A former Indonesian maid is leading calls for better treatment of migrant workers in Hong Kong. 

Time magazine recently named a 23-year-old Indonesian woman who'd been working as a maid in Hong Kong among its top 100 Most Influential People of 2014.
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih received extensive publicity after returning home with multiple injuries, allegedly inflicted by an employer who didn't even pay her.
Time magazine says her willingness to speak out has drawn attention to the plight of many thousands of vulnerable and often invisible migrant workers in Hong Kong.Samantha Yap reports on efforts to win higher wages and better conditions for these foreign workers in the Chinese special administrative region.
This shelter, located behind a church in Hong Kong, accommodates foreign domestic helpers who have no place to stay.
Some migrant workers seek refuge here, away from their employers.
Others come to stay temporarily while they look for their next job.
Most migrant workers in Hong Kong come from Indonesia and the Philippines to work as household maids.
Indonesian women make up almost half of the 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Tina, from Indonesia, escaped from her employer to stay in this shelter.
She says she tried to endure her employer's attitude.
Tina had been working in Hong Kong for more than two years before switching to this new employer.
But she says this boss was never satisfied with her work.
Living in the same shelter with Tina is Ganika Dristiani - an Indonesian domestic worker who's now also an activist.
She's the head of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong and spends her spare time campaigning for the human rights of domestic helpers.
She says Indonesian migrant workers only choose to go to Hong Kong because they cannot find work in Indonesia.
In addition to poor working conditions, migrant workers in Hong Kong are often underpaid.
The current minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers is set by the Hong Kong government at around $560 per month.
But in a report late last year, Amnesty International said more than a third of the foreign women workers it interviewed were receiving less than the minimum wage.
Most of these women were on their first contract.
Ganika Dristiani says new migrant workers are often taken advantage of when they arrive in Hong Kong for the first time.
"If the migrant workers are inexperienced like I was when I first came to Hong Kong, they are often underpaid. I didn't have any experience and I spoke very little English. I was being told that if anyone asks or I come across the police or whoever, I was forbidden from telling them my salary. If I did, they said I could be detained. That is what made me scared of getting caught by the police. Therefore to avoid any problems I remained quiet although I was still being underpaid."
But underpayment is just one problem faced by foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong.
To secure an employment contract in the first place, migrant workers are required to pay the equivalent of about 3,000 Australian dollars as a fee to a recruitment agency.
These agency fees are generally deducted from their salary for the first seven to ten months of their contract.
Ganika Dristiani believes most migrant workers are unaware of the agency fees before they commit to moving to Hong Kong.
"Before leaving to go overseas we don't know that we have to pay 21,000 Hong Kong Dollars to the agents. 21,000 Hong Kong dollars is a lot of money. If we calculate how much we earn after deducting agency fees, we don't get a lot and it is about the same salary as we would get in Indonesia. We don't choose to work in Hong Kong because the pay is any better we go because it is difficult to find work in Indonesia."
The United Indonesians Against Overcharging alliance, known as PILAR, was set up in 2007 to protect migrant workers from being exploited by recruitment agencies.
President of PILAR, Eni Lestari says she aims to hold the Indonesian and Hong Kong government responsible for preventing excessive recruitment fees.
"We see that almost 100 per cent of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong suffer from paying agency fees that take seven to ten months pay and it becomes a vicious cycle. This is why we have decided to launch the Indonesian Migrant Worker union against agency fees because we want to establish a lobby and advocacy for the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments to change the rules relating to agency fees."
The Amnesty International report found that excessive recruitment fees are common among Indonesian migrant workers and put them in serious debt.
It says these debts often force migrant workers to accept exploitation and abuse.
Eni Lestari says foreign domestic helpers deserve to have a say in implementing agency fee rules.
"We want the government to make the agency fee rules transparent and fair. We want the Association of the Indonesian Migrant Workers to be involved. Until now, all the negotiations regarding fees are decided by the recruitment agencies and the Indonesian government. We don't have a voice and yet we are the ones that are paying these fees. This is the problem. We are the ones that know how much we should have to pay."
Excessive agency fees fall under the International Labour Organisation's definition of 'debt bondage'.
Eni Lestari says she is particularly concerned about migrant workers who are unaware of their rights.
"We are very concerned with the situation of Indonesian foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong who have no knowledge of the law and the notion that they feel they have no access to justice. Because of this, we have to take action."
Helpers for Domestic Helpers is a not-for-profit organisation set up in central Hong Kong, to provide free legal aid for migrant workers.
Advisor, Betty Listiani Wagner, says she often deals with underpayment cases.
"There are a lot of underpayment cases usually that we help and negotiate to the employer, or write letters to the employer and explain about the employment ordinance in Hong Kong and the law in Hong Kong. Some of them respond and try to reach amicable settlements. Most of the domestic helpers are quite happy."
Betty Listiani Wagner says some migrant workers have managed to reach significant monetary settlements with their employers.
She also often deals with cases where maids have been abused by their employers.
"What I see, it's horrible, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and assaults. A client came with an iron [scar] in the arm."
Ms Wagner says migrant workers are often fearful of standing up for themselves.
"They are also scared to speak up about police cases, and if hear employers say, "Okay if you don't sign it, and you terminate the letter then I'm going to call the police." They're already scared. They've done nothing, but they're scared. So we also have to explain to the client that if you've done nothing, do not be afraid, you have to speak up and the one who can help you is yourself. If they say I'm calling the police, okay call the police and then you can explain what happens, you know?"
Ms Wagner says a lot of Indonesian women who come to her are vulnerable.
"I'm happy to give advice to make them more confident. I like to tell them that the one who can help you is yourself. If you're not confident if you don't fight for your right, it will never change. We show you how you can do it."
Meanwhile, Tina hopes to look for another job in Hong Kong, but she has this to say to her fellow domestic helpers in Indonesia.
"I want to advise my fellow Indonesian friends to think twice about going overseas to work. Serving other people, is not the same as serving your husband. If you work for people it is much worse. You have to be more careful because it's not just physical labour, it is an emotional struggle too."
For now, Tina is not ready to return to Indonesia.
"I don't want to go home because I haven't made enough money here yet. I want to raise my children so that they can make their parents' proud. I want them to have good education and be useful to the society and the country. I don't want them to be an object of ridicule like I am right now. I have two sons, I don't want them to suffer like I am suffering now. I don't want any of my children, their children and their children's children to be domestic workers. I want them to be successful and able to contribute to the country and the nation."


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