Eni Lestari: the Making of A Migrant Labor Organizer (Part 1)

Editor’s Note:

What makes a committed labor organizer? Eni Lestari was among the tens of thousands of migrants from Indonesia who moved to Hong Kong and worked as a migrant domestic worker. With over 300,000 foreign domestic workers, Hong Kong is among the top migrant destinations in Asia and one of the most discriminatory against migrant workers. ALR contributor Elaine Lu spoke with Eni about how she turned anger and frustration into organizing and became a committed labor organizer.

Elaine: You lived in Hong Kong for almost twenty years. What made you move from Indonesia to Hong Kong to become a domestic helper?

Eni: This goes back to the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998. Indonesia also had a political crisis, where the military government regime was ousted by the youth. The economy was in turbulence, and there was a lot of uncertainty, and politically, it was very chaotic. At the time, I had just graduated from high school and was not involved in political issues. Of course, my family had open discussions about what happened, but we lived in a remote village, so there wasn’t much we could do. But my family always believed in education, so they really wanted us, my two younger siblings and me, to enrol in universities. They were only selling vegetables at a vendor in the market. They worked very hard to earn enough money to send us to school, hoping we could enrol in the university. But when the crisis came, everything fell apart.

My parents were indebted because they could not cope with the inflation then. So they took extra jobs at night just to earn extra money. But this was still not enough, and I witnessed how much they struggled for two years, trying to survive in that unpredictable economic condition. At the time, I was a home-based worker. Some companies would drop stuff in the villages, and we worked from home, and this was work that especially targeted women. I remember we were just braiding the hair of dolls, and there were different types of items every week or every month. I remember the doll because it was really fun to braid the hair. Many women took up this kind of side job. And since my parents were away every day, even at night, they depended on me to take care of my siblings.

By 1999, when things were not better, I could not even find a university where I could afford to study, so I told my parents I could not stay like this. I have to find a way to solve this problem. I cannot be idle in the house. And then one of my friends came to me and asked: “Why don’t we just work abroad? Let’s go to Hong Kong.” So I talked to my parents, and they first said no. That I was not allowed to leave the house. At the time, I’d never been apart from my family, and as I’m the eldest daughter, I can understand how tough it was for them to even think about that idea. So it took me many months just to convince them and explain that I’d be fine and contact them. After many months, my parents finally allowed me to leave.

And then, my friend and I were recruited by a broker in the village, and they brought us to the big agency in Surabaya, the capital of East Java. One of the unjust regulations from the Indonesian government is when it comes to women migration; they impose a regulation that we must go to private licensed agencies to leave the country. This is part of the national regulation. So everyone, goes to the agency, and the agency will be the one doing the administrative procedures but also finding a job for you overseas. Once you enter that agency, you cannot leave until the day you leave the country. The time of stay in this, we called it the Training Center, can be six months, eight months, 12 months, sometimes even one and a half years, because if they cannot find a job for you or no employer wants to hire you, you will be stuck there for longer. The agency really inspired me to criticize the labor migration system in Indonesia, the agency system, because it’s just very unfair and very abusive. They are imposing a slavery system against us, and we are practically made to be very docile, so we become the kind of helper where you just rely on your employer for everything.

When I left the country and arrived in Hong Kong, I was with 11 women. Then, the agency took away my passport, so practically, I never saw my document, except the day I left the airport in Indonesia and the day I arrived. I was underpaid. They told me I would be paid like 1800 while the minimum wage at that time was 3670. They said I would not have a day off unless my employer gave me a day off and that whatever arrangement was up to the employer. I never really knew about the law or the regulation. I thought that was the regulation.

The agencies are also very tricky. They give a small percentage of prospective women migrants with full entitlement like minimum wage and weekly rest days, but this is only one in 10 women or at most two in 10. So eight to nine women out of 10 are actually underpaid, denied a rest day, and many other things. At the time, I thought it was legal. I never questioned them. I never knew; at that time, we were not allowed to read the contract. During my first three months in Hong Kong, they did not give me any salary because they said I had to pay the agency fee. And I had no day off. They just gave me 200 Hong Kong dollars as a rest day compensation.

I also struggled so much because of the winter; they did not give me a jacket, and they just gave me one pair of long pants, two long-sleeved T-shirts and one jacket. It was very tough, and it was in Fan Ling, where it was like five or seven degrees Celsius. I insisted on having my day off in the fifth and sixth months. But my employer was not happy about that. They say, “You know you don’t have a day off for two years, right?” Well, the agency told me, but I wanted to meet my friend; I wanted to call my family. After I insisted that I really wanted to talk to my family, they finally gave me a once-a-month holiday. And that’s when I was able to ask around how to get out and who to contact.

Then I got the number of the Mission for Migrant Workers. That’s when they told me, “Oh, you are cheated. In Hong Kong, whether you’re Filipino, Indonesian, Nepali, Sri Lankan or any nationality, if you’re a domestic worker, you are entitled to the same rights”. That’s when I thought, “Wow, I’ve been cheated”. And then, they advised me to get evidence and come to their office. So, I ran away after seven and a half months of employment.

Elaine: I’m guessing you were so angry and frustrated at the system, which pushed you to become an activist.

Eni: My activism began after I ran away, and there were many women in the same shelter. The shelter is called Bethune House Shelter. I remember there were more than 30 women in the same shelter; it was a very big shelter. I think the biggest shelter in Hong Kong was Bethune House at that time. I shared a room and a house with different nationalities. My friends were Nepalese, Filipinos, and Indonesians, and there were one or two Indians. And that’s when I saw that the problem I experienced was a very common issue. My realization was that it was not only me; I thought I was the only one suffering under the sky of Hong Kong. But there are many, many of them. There are many nationalities, and some of them are worse; the employer is physically abusing them, they are being sexually molested, and some of the mistreatment by employers is very severe. So I thought, Oh, my God, Hong Kong is not good for the domestic helper. So that’s my first realization.

The second realization is that I noticed that, especially among Filipinos and the Nepalis at the time, they were well organized. I joined their activities every Sunday because I was unemployed in Hong Kong. If you lose your job and file a legal case, you are not allowed to work. After that, I applied for a new job, and until my visa is approved, I’m not allowed to work. Therefore, every Sunday, I joined the community. If they go to protests, they go to the beach, or they go to different social events, I joined them. And I was really inspired by how organized they are. And I wondered to myself, how come they are so organized, know their rights, and can say it out loud, but not Indonesians?

I realized it was the design of the labor migration from Indonesia; they made us cheaper. It’s illegal in Hong Kong, but it is really how the agency sold us to the employers, that they can hire Indonesians at half price, no need to give them a rest day; that kind of promotion is like selling computers or iPhones, phone. It was really the stripping away of our rights that became the selling point of the agency. It was with the consent of the Indonesian government because they knew most of their nationals were being treated that way, but they did not do anything; they even had the agency to take away workers’ passports. When I reported my case, the agency kept my passport, and the consulate helped to get it from the agency so they knew that they were keeping their passport. They are helping each other to cheat us. So, my second realization was that if you are organized or informed about your rights, you can fight, and Indonesians need that.

The third thing is that many groups can support us in Hong Kong. But then the problem is, we do not know how to access them, we do not know how to speak English, and we are not brave enough to even address these issues. In my experience, I learned about legal rights, and after that, I volunteered at the Mission for Migrant Workers. I became an interpreter and went everywhere, from the police station to Immigration to the Labor Department. I wanted to know how the system works. My colleague and I were exploring our capacity and knowledge at that time. And then we shared it with our fellow migrants.

That’s how we decided to form the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers. This is the first labor organization we created because we wanted a banner or an umbrella. I was the chairperson for 12 years. Our main activities are raising awareness of legal rights and assisting Indonesians in accessing their rights. This includes interpreting and assisting them to go here physically and there or file a case to the Labor Department or go to the agency or the consulate. Learning from my own experience, we created a system to make Indonesians feel safe. When they go to the agency, we created a buddy system, like one person must be assisted by at least one or another two people when they go to the agency, to the consulate, to their employers, because we experienced many who were kidnapped by the agency. They were not allowed to leave the premises. They were sent back home, and by the time they called us, they were already back in Indonesia, so we were very traumatized.

Eni Lestari: the Making of A Migrant Labor Organizer (Part 2)

Eni Lestari is a migrant rights activist and a former Indonesian migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong for over 20 years. She is the current chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), a first ever global alliance of grassroots migrants, immigrants, refugees and other displaced people.

Elaine Lu is a labour activist and writer. Her interests include labour rights and civil society in China and Southeast Asia. Her writing has been published in New Politics, Labor Notes and ChinaFile.