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

Elaine: You mentioned that this fear was so intense among the Indonesians that it must have taken a lot of time to start organizing them. What strategies did you use to organize Indonesian domestic helpers?

Eni: I remember there were 11 Indonesians in the same shelter, and we were all unemployed. On Sundays, we spent our days in Victoria Park, where I would always gather with my fellow Indonesians from the same agency in Indonesia. Some of them are very supportive of my case; they even gave donations like noodles or cash. But some of them were very afraid, like “Eni, what are you doing? Why did you run away? How dare you?”. It would help if you didn’t do this, so don’t challenge them. I remember half of them decided not to join our group anymore. Because they were so afraid to be associated with us, they ran away from the agency. I remember there were two of us who came from the same agency and ran away. So, suddenly, you lost friends because they were very afraid. But anyway, we continued.

I shared with them what I learned about rights and how to access them. I was just very persistent in telling them that they have these rights. Because everything was only in Chinese and English, if you don’t know, you just don’t know. I used my experience to tell them that we have rights. And slowly, one by one, they came to us. I did not have a phone at that time. We used the shelter number as our hotline after consent from the shelter director. Suddenly, people kept calling us, like people who had called us and said, “I found an Indonesian here in the market. Can you come and help?” So we ran there. Or people called to tell us “There is somebody in the police station”. So suddenly, we became an office even though we didn’t have an organization. Then, the formation of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers became our breakthrough, and we were more confident about going out.

After that, we were very consistent in going to Victoria Park or going around Hong Kong, giving away fliers. Then, we created a hotline for people to reach us. But then there was a time when we got to Victoria Park, and the consulate staff came to us, and the agency kept coming to us. They kept saying, “Oh, who are you? I can report you to the police; you know, you are not a registered organization; what you are doing is illegal”. We just displayed a banner and shared it; if you need help, you can come to us for free. And then suddenly, this agency, literally for a month, kept coming and asking many questions. My friends were very afraid because many of them were still in cases. They think that if they continue to participate, they will not be able to find another job.

Finally, after a month, we moved to Kowloon Park or Star Ferry just so that we could have a safe space to gather. While doing that, we also registered the organization with the society ordinance. After the license was issued, we decided to go back to Victoria Park. We also conducted the first survey to study the issues of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong. We were busy with the survey for two or three weeks. The agency still came, but we were licensed. Also, the director of the Bethune house, Edwina Antonio, is Filipina; she came with us for several weeks just to be a security. So when the guy came, she was the one talking to that guy; she was the one fighting with this guy. That’s when we thought, “Oh, actually, you can fight back.” And since then, we’ve become very confident. We were always stationed at Victoria Park, and the number of members continued to increase. That’s how the workers feel comfortable and secure.

After the survey, we found out that most of the domestic workers were facing serious issues. All of us were overcharged we had like 17 to 21,000 collected from our salary. 80% had no passport in their hand, and 90% were underpaid. There were very chronic issues and severe human rights violations. We called a press conference and brought the results of the survey to the consulate. The consulate sent somebody to take a photo of our faces because many Indonesians were afraid because they were still in the shelter. So they created this black hoodie, like when you were about to be beheaded, so they could cover their entire face with a black hoodie. And only their eyes appeared. We gave them the option to wear that. It became very dramatic; it was the first protest, but after that, people became confident. They realized that we can do protests, we can gather, we can do surveys, and we can be critical. Since then, the intimidation has lessened. The consulate did not come to us, and the agency stopped coming to us, but of course, they went around telling other groups to be careful with our group, saying things like, “They will steal your job; don’t believe that group”.

Elaine: From your assessment, the situation has improved compared to 20 years ago. What would you see as the main demands that domestic helpers in Hong Kong are advocating for? What are the kinds of key issues?

Eni: Now, our issue is very structural. It’s not only about one nationality being discriminated against. In that era, it was very severe, not only structural issues but also per nationality; we have our own issues with the underpayment of wages and so on. I think that practice has been eradicated so far. There are a few cases, but these cases are not the majority, and it is not common anymore for people to be underpaid and denied rest days. But now, after overcoming all these difficulties, we face the actual structural problem: the discrimination imposed by the Hong Kong government against domestic workers.

One is the very low standard of wages. They create this minimum allowable, which is not even legal. It’s not even the statutory minimum wage; it’s only for domestic helpers, and that type of salary was decided by a few people in the Labor Department. You cannot even question that. We have been questioning that and been calling for the government to include us in the statutory minimum. You can come up with a formula for how to compute our wages, but do not exclude us from the minimum wage legislation, which they refuse to do. So our campaign now is the living wage for domestic workers because our wage is very substandard, very low, and inadequate.

It’s very hard to survive with that wage. That’s why a lot of domestic workers are indebted; many of them are trapped in debt because whenever there is a crisis back home, they don’t have enough to send back home. That money is only enough for basic costs of living, but they cannot do more with that kind of salary. In Hong Kong, the inflation never goes down. It’s always going up every year, like two, three, five per cent every single year. We cannot even survive with that kind of low income. So, every year, we protest for an increase, but of course, the government only give us piecemeal, like HKD 100 or 150 a month. So, then we have to protest every year.

The second is about the live-in rule. We want flexibility in whether to live in or live out and let the employer and employee decide. It also gives us some bargaining power; if there is no room in the house, the helper can say, I cannot sleep on the floor or the couch. But now, they impose no live out at all. So even employers who want to have helpers live out it is difficult because they will be charged with a criminal offence. It’s not only us but also many employers who really prefer their workers to live out because they know they cannot give us privacy or good sleeping arrangements. So they prefer to spend money for us to find a boarding house, but then, under the law, it’s illegal, both for the employees and employers.

And then the third is the right to change employers. This is where job hopping comes in. The Hong Kong Government, for the longest years, has always forced us to leave Hong Kong within two weeks if we lose our job or have finished our contract. We were only given two weeks to find another job. If we couldn’t find another job, we were required to leave Hong Kong and reapply. And that costs a lot of money. Because agencies will use that opportunity to charge again, three months, five months, they just say a number. We have been advocating for the Hong Kong government to allow us just to change jobs; if we lose jobs, whoever terminates the contract doesn’t matter. However, they only allow certain types of termination. For example, if the employer dies, the employer moves out of Hong Kong or the employer goes bankrupt, or there is a human rights violation, but this only applies to very severe cases, like you are physically abused, you are not paid for many months, but then you have to file legal cases. That’s the only time they will allow you to change jobs without leaving Hong Kong. That’s why a lot of domestic workers do not want to terminate their contracts. We call it the two-week rule.

Now, they impose additional requirements. If you are coming to Hong Kong, they will assess how many employers you have changed in the past. They will make many inquiries and send many questions for you to answer about your past employment. For example, if you lose a job and then find another employer, but in the past three or four years, you have changed two employers already. The possibility of being accepted directly is very slim. Even if the employer has many support letters, Immigration will still not allow that foreign worker to be employed. So, they say you should stay home for one year before reapplying. This is what they called job popping. They say we suspect you keep changing employers because you just want to get a higher salary or take the opportunity for granted.

Elaine: About your journey from being a domestic helper to becoming an activist and now Chairperson of IMA, what drives you? Because I guess not everyone is born to be an activist or will start doing this sort of organizing work. What do you think has kind of kept you going all these years doing this work? It’s been very difficult and challenging as well.

Eni: It starts with the reality that I have to work to earn money for my family because I have two younger siblings and old parents to support, and naturally, I have to find income for them. That is number one. Then, I became a domestic worker, living in Hong Kong anyway. And because I love learning, discovering new things and exploring. When I learned about organizing and how it can change many people’s lives, even educating them about legal rights and organizing them, it gave them hope, and they felt they were not alone. They feel they are supported; they feel they’re understood. So, I realize this is where I can contribute to the community while doing my job.

Along the way, when I had a broader understanding of globalization, how global capitalism works, and how forced migration has become a reality for many generations, I realized this would not be a short-term fight. This is going to be long-term; I think the simple wish of the migrant is, “Can I not be a migrant? Can I just stay home and be with my family? Can I earn the same amount of income back home? Can I have a choice of not leaving the country?” So, I think this is very simple and very innocent. Still, the answer to that is very complex, and it becomes our political education to explain to them, “Why Indonesia cannot even give a job to many of us, especially women, the poor and the uneducated.” So that becomes our political education.

The second question is, then, why are the migrants being exploited? We are asking for little, but then we face very harsh treatment, denial, and even very abusive treatment from the government, agency, employer and so on. That’s when we have to discover the reality of who is a migrant within this global economic context. We are just cheap workers; we are imported because of our economic value. That’s where we have to explain it, and it’s become another political education for our community. That’s when I realized we would still live in the same system. So the question will be, what can I do to contribute to dismantling the system in my capacity and experience? We can implement reforms by educating the community, organizing them, and mobilizing them. I don’t like injustices, but then concretely, what can I do? How can I be part of the social change itself?

So, honestly, every step of the way is learning. I have to learn many things. In the beginning, I just learned dancing; now I have to learn to give education. Initially, I was just running here and there, using my English to help others. But now I have to write my speeches, so it is kind of evolving. I think the challenge for activists or activism is how we evolve through learning every step of the way. So, it’s kind of an endless learning process, and I would love to keep it that way. I will stay humble and more open to new things rather than stagnant. I’ve witnessed many activists having that problem. When we age and grow older, sometimes we think we know everything, and I think that will become a problem. The new generation of migrants is very different. Now, there are many of them in the millennial generation, those born in the 90s and 2000s, and even Gen Z. So, unless we are willing to be open, activism is very difficult. They will not listen to you. And I think if you do not know how to cope with these new changes, the activism might even die.

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.