One year ago, the abuse suffered by Indonesian domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih at the hands of a Hong Kong housewife was exposed. On February 8, 2015, a Hong Kong court found the 44-year-old woman guilty of 19 charges, including causing bodily harm, common assault and failing to pay Sulistyaningsih's wages.
Before the trial, Wong Siu Woon, a campaigner working for the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which has given support to Sulistyaningsih since her case was first brought to light, interviewed her about her experiences in Hong Kong. In the interview, she criticized the employment agencies and the Hong Kong and Indonesia governments for playing dumb to the exploitative conditions that domestic workers face.
The interview was originally published in Chinese on citizen media platform inmediahk.net on February 12, 2015, soon after the court announced its verdict. It was translated by Cheung Choi Wan and is published on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Indonesian maid Erwiana's name appeared in local and international media throughout 2014 because of her experience as a migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong — beaten and tortured by her employer. Photos of her abhorrent injuries went viral online. She was even named one of Times magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
There are currently over 300,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong coming from Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. They take care of children, elderly people and do household chores for Hong Kong families. Erwiana was one of them. Her terrible story has drawn the attention of Hong Kong people to the situation of migrant domestic workers.
Hong Kong is a city of migrants. Going to a foreign country to earn a living is a choice that many of us are familiar with. Fate has chosen Erwiana so that she may speak out for all migrant domestic workers who have been suffering abuse quietly. A year after her story was disclosed, Erwiana spoke to CTU Newsletter about what she thought of the situation of domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Like most migrant domestic workers from Indonesia, Erwiana left her home in Central Java when she finished secondary school. She went to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, to work as a waitress in a restaurant. When she heard that she could earn more money working overseas, she enrolled herself in a training course conducted by an employment agency. Young women from rural areas who want to earn money are often recruited by representatives sent there by employment agencies. They are told that it is easy to earn money overseas and they would live a metropolitan life. Many young women are lured by this imaginary good life overseas. The agents are paid according to the number of people they recruit and it is calculated on the basis of how many people they get to enroll in the employment agency's training course.
Erwiana had no relatives or friends in Hong Kong. In her mind, Hong Kong was a metropolitan city where every person lived freely. Unlike many neighbouring countries, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong enjoy a day off every week. After months of training, the employment agencies in Indonesia helps young women find employers in Hong Kong. They come to Hong Kong when they are selected by an employer. When they arrive in Hong Kong, they are picked up immediately by the employment agency in Hong Kong and lose any opportunity to learn about their rights. Erwiana had never imagined that in the eight months she was in Hong Kong, she would not have even one day off from work. Even though domestic workers are entitled to one day off every week, many employers take advantage of the fact that the workers live with them and insist that they work throughout the week.
If you had difficulties at work, whom would you turn to for help? Your family, your friends, or government agencies? Migrant domestic workers who just arrive in Hong Kong usually have no friends or relatives here and do not speak the local language. If a worker does not even have her weekly day off, how could she make friends and build her own support network? If there is no one she could trust, whom could she turn to for help?
What about the employment agency that sends her here? Erwiana said that in the eyes of employment agencies, the domestic workers were only a source of easy money. Employment agencies are not at all concerned about the situation of the workers, not to mention standing up for them. Erwiana said that this was all because of the Indonesian government that transferred the responsibility of protecting the rights of migrant domestic workers to employment agencies. In Indonesian law, when a worker changes her employer, she must do it through the employment agencies registered with the Indonesian embassy. The agencies can, therefore, take advantage of the measure and charge very high additional commissions. All the money that a worker earns is used to pay her employment agency rather than sent home to her family. However, a domestic worker hardly gets any help from the agency when she needs it.
Erwiana was grateful that the Hong Kong government pursued her case. However, it is common knowledge that not all cases of abuse of migrant domestic workers have been pursued in the same earnest manner. If not all complaints of abuse are dealt with earnestly, how can we stop abusive employers from mistreating their workers? “We come here to earn money to support our families. We should be entitled to fair protection,” Erwiana said. She believed that the Indonesian government and the Hong Kong government should regulate the commission that the agencies charge to ensure that it is not too high. They should also provide migrant domestic workers with information and education about who they could seek help from.
The employment agencies, who are concerned only about making money, and the two governments, who only act when cases of abuse catch the public's attention, might not be the ones who beat the workers, but doesn’t the fact that they often sanction employers’ abuse of workers make them accomplices in the crime committed by the employers?
Because of what happened to Erwiana, Hong Kong has nicknamed the “City of Modern Slavery.” However, Erwiana does not harbour any hatred towards Hong Kong. “In every country there are good people as well as bad people. It’s the same everywhere,” she said. What she is concerned about is the fate of other young women who came to work in Hong Kong—how their fate is being spun by powerful institutions and whether they would suffer it quietly.
No one wants to see such a tragedy again, so collective action is necessary to ensure that the human rights of migrant domestic workers are protected. As one who had firsthand experience of abuse, Erwiana’s advice for other women who came to Hong Kong to work is to learn about the laws of their own countries and those of Hong Kong, and to find out what they should do when they are in trouble. If a worker unfortunately has an abusive employer, she must be courageous and should not suffer abuse in silence. Instead, she should seek help from migrant workers’ organisations, many of which have been around for years and have a long history of working with migrant workers. A few member unions of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) work for domestic workers of different nationalities. There are also a number of NGOs that provide services to migrant workers. However, they often find it hard to get in touch with migrant domestic workers who are abused, especially when they are isolated from the rest of the world. After the case of Erwiana was publicised, many migrant workers’ organisations and local labour groups joined together to help.
On the one hand, migrant workers come to work in Hong Kong because of unemployment in their own countries. On the other hand, there is a lack of childcare and elderly services in Hong Kong as well as a lack of labour for domestic work. The relationship between migrant workers and Hong Kong people should have been that of mutual benefit. However, because of the collusion between employment agencies across national borders, unjust government policies and discrimination, workers are often sacrificed.
When asked about her future plans, Erwiana said that she no longer wanted to leave her country for work. Because of what she has gone through, physically she is unable to take up labour intensive work anymore. Her choice of work in the future is limited. She is now studying in a university in Indonesia and wants to become a teacher. Her hope is that the next generation in her country does not have to suffer the fate of migrant workers anymore.