CHINA: Erwiana’s Case Should Hasten Migration Policy Changes in HK and Indonesia

Monday 27 January 2014

Date: 20 January

Type: Press Statement

Source:Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants

Keywords: migrant rights, domestic helpers, abuse

First Kartika, now Erwiana. They are Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong who have been abused so badly by their employers in this most “civilized” of Asian cities. In the case of Erwiana, the maltreatment was done with such wanton cruelty as has shocked even the local citizenry and triggered the largest ever indignation rally of Indonesian migrant workers in the region. Press photos of Erwiana’s current state speaks volumes on the level of degrading treatment she has experienced in the hands of her erstwhile employer.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih was practically tortured for eight months, involving beatings, scorching of skin and deprivation of sleep and adequate nourishment. She was also unpaid for several months, and was threatened by her employer to keep silent about her ordeal before she was sent back to Indonesia. Her injuries are such that it will take months for her to recover and some of which may even be permanent, while her employer denies culpability and remains remorseless when questioned by police. Susi, another domestic worker who used to work for this same employer, has come forward and has narrated similar stories of maltreatment.

Right in the heels of Erwiana’s case, another one surfaced that involves an associate college head and dean of students at Chinese University’s United College physically abusing her 50-year old maid. The cases of grave abuses of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong pile up every year, and many of these do not even see public scrutiny.

While it is easy for the Hong Kong government to point a finger to erring employers and treat each case in a legal way, there are attendant policy issues that it habitually ignores and which migrant organizations have been bringing up for so long. For the longest time, the HK government has mandated that all foreign domestic workers live in the houses of their employers, a rule that even the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in its Domestic Workers’ Convention (C189) considers as violative of migrant domestics’ fundamental rights. Aside from restricting the migrant domestics’ freedom of movement, this archaic work arrangement creates conditions for other violations to occur, such as overly long working hours (averaging 16 in Hong Kong); lack of privacy that encourages sexual harrassment; and deprivation of cultural rights (such as that of freedom of worship and religion-based diets).

Another is the two-week rule which requires that migrant domestics in Hong Kong return to their country of origin when breaking contract with an employer, a costly recourse for Indonesian migrants who are obliged to pay placement agencies for every new contract. This intimidating prospect acts as a leverage for HK employers to keep on abusing their domestics with impunity, especially Indonesians whose own government has empowered private recruitment agencies to extract fees even for re-contracts.

But the biggest issue at stake is the moral correctness of exporting workers en masse to offset domestic unemployment and to generate profit for the big banks. As one of the largest migrant-sending countries in the Asia Pacific, the Indonesian government has also been one of the most aggressive in undermining the basic rights of its migrant domestics to ensure that they remain highly-marketable in the increasingly competitive world of temporary labor migration. Having one of the most neoliberal and corrupt governments in the region also exposes Indonesia’s migrant workers to increasingly exorbitant processing fees from both public and private agencies, such that debt-bondage and vulnerability to abuse is a common condition for Indonesian migrant domestic workers in the region.

The profit-oriented pragmatics of labor migration has created an unholy alliance of migrant-sending and receiving countries, and does much to explain the intransingence of China’s and Indonesia’s respective governments in ratifying ILO’s C189. Doing so would have provided added protection to Indonesian domestics in Hong Kong and Macau, and would have allowed Erwiana, Kartika and other victims of worker-abuse greater leeway in avoiding oppressive conditions of employment.

In line with this case and its ongoing regional campaign for the widespread adoption of ILO C189, the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM) is calling on the governments of Indonesia and China to make the redress process for Erwiana as a timely occasion for ratifying the Convention and integrating its provisions in their local laws, including that of Hong Kong and Macau. Referencing C189 in both countries will do much to improve the end-to-end institutional landscape for Indonesian migrant domestics, paving the way for their greater empowerment based on the principles of human rights and social justice.

This being said, simply adopting the C189 will not be enough to fully address the vulnerabilities of foreign domestic workers especially in the long term, as the root cause of their oppression lies in state policies of labor exportation and remittance-driven development. Economic, social and political injustices at home conspire to push workers outwards to take on precarious jobs abroad, and therein lies the true source of their vulnerabilities. This must be addressed by the Indonesian government, as should all migrant-sending countries in the Asia Pacific. This is the only enduring way to give justice to Erwiana and all abused foreign domestic workers everywhere. ###

See online : Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants

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