Friday, February 28, 2014

Migrant Servants Organise

"Women united will never be divided! Migrants united will never be divided!" chant women at a Hong Kong public park.

"With this kind of solidarity, people can be heard," said Eni Lestari, chair of the International Migrant Workers Alliance, as she surveyed the rally. "More and more people are speaking out. But in terms of conditions, it's not getting better."

The numbers of foreign domestic helpers, overwhelmingly female, have soared across the Asia-Pacific region. In 1992, Hong Kong had slightly more than 100,000; now there are three times as many. Malaysia has 125,000; in Thailand, 88,000 were registered in 2010. But the true numbers are thought to be far higher for all three. The Filipino and Indonesian diaspora have been joined by Burmese, Nepalese and Cambodian workers.

 Reports of exploitation by employers and agencies are rife; rights are limited. While Singapore recently introduced a statutory weekly day off, campaigners say it is not being adequately enforced and employers can legally avoid granting it by increasing pay. Migrants in Taiwan have been fighting for the same right, without success.  A 2012 survey of 3,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, 58% reported verbal abuse, 18% physical and 6% sexual.

Lestari is from Indonesia. She said her first employers did not give her a single day off in four months; paid her only half her promised wages; insisted she eat pork despite her being Muslim; and banned her from talking to people outside the house.

"I didn't know where the consulate was; I didn't know the immigration department; my passport was kept by the agency. I ran away and an NGO helped me to find shelter," she said and she credits Filipino women – who came to Hong Kong earlier – for helping teach later arrivals how to organise. First she learned about her rights; and now she shares her new knowledge with others. Social media ensures that information spreads fast, particularly since domestic workers are dependent on their mobile phones for communication with the outside world. Improved awareness of their rights enables them to challenge unfair treatment.

But "our problem is not simply bad employers, but bad policies", Lestari said. When workers speak out, officials in home and host countries turn a blind eye to problems because of migration's economic benefits. Domestic workers are specifically excluded from legislation allowing foreign nationals to gain permanent residency after living in Hong Kong for seven years. A legal challenge to their exclusion was rejected by the special autonomous region's highest court last year.

Domestic workers' organisations such as the new HK Helpers campaign are seeking to end abuses by agencies who charge fees of as much as HKD$21,000 (£1,620) and confiscate workers' documents. The legal maximum is around HKD$400. They also want maximum working hours legislation and an end to the "two-week rule" – giving workers just a fortnight to leave Hong Kong when their employment ends – and the insistence they live with their employer. Those regulations, say activists, make it harder to leave an abusive situation – especially if helpers have large debts to repay to the agency that placed them.

From here

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