Not obedience but Dignity: A message from a former migrant worker

Written by Iweng Karsiwen and Ratih Kabinawa. Edited by Isabelle Cheng.

Image credit: Protect and save migrant workers from the death penalty by Kabar Bumi.

A former domestic worker in Hong Kong for over ten years, Iweng Karsiwen is currently the Chair of Families of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Kabar Bumi). Initially she was recruited to work in Taiwan when the door opened for Indonesian women seeking domestic work there. However, instead of going to Taiwan, Iweng found herself arriving at a Hong Kong MTR station late one evening a year later. Knowing how the brokering industry functioned at home and abroad, after returning to Indonesia, Iweng was determined to help those who worked abroad and who faced similar challenges at various stage of their migration. She has particularly campaigned to outlaw salary reduction. This, as well as other practices mentioned by Iweng, are commonly adopted by brokers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Below are her reflections on her journey from being an exploited domestic worker to becoming an activist aiming to empower those who need help and those who are willing to listen and take action.

In 2000, I graduated from senior high school and was awarded a scholarship to continue my studies at university. However, my dream of pursuing higher education was shattered after my sister got ill and required expensive medical treatments. As an elder sibling, I bore the responsibility of supporting my family’s income. After all, my sister had supported my studying before, when she was herself a migrant worker. I gave up my scholarship and decided to work abroad as a migrant worker. In my village in Central Java, Indonesia, working abroad as a migrant worker was common. Some of my female neighbours had gone to work as domestic workers in Singapore, Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia. They, like me, were hoping to earn money overseas to raise living standards for their family. Some of them took this ‘opportunity’ voluntarily, but others, like myself, were forced to do it by economic hardship.

The brokering industry seems to make overseas employment a ready-to-take option. By law, Indonesian people cannot get an overseas employment contract without going through a brokering agency. This allows the industry to make profits out of poverty. Brokers may work with several brokering agencies so that they can maximise their profits, since they receive a commission from these agencies, which are often based in Jakarta or major cities, such as Surabaya. In my village, in June or July, brokers will knock on people’s doors when young people graduate from junior or senior school and ‘offer’ them opportunities to work abroad. Many people in my village used the service offered by these brokers, including myself, because we had little knowledge about working overseas. I didn’t know who these brokers were and what their background was. I only knew that If I wanted to go abroad and earn money, I had to follow their instructions.

Once a prospective worker agrees to work abroad, brokers will ask the worker to prepare all the required documents. These include a birth certificate, an education certificate, a resident certificate, a national identification certificate and a consent from the father (or from the husband if the prospective worker is married). After these are collected, brokers will send a prospective worker to an agency in Jakarta. According to Indonesian law, the minimum age for working overseas is twenty-one years, but I was only nineteen years old. For underaged workers, agencies usually forge their birth certificate to make them pass the age requirement, but for some reason they did not do this for me.

In Jakarta, prospective migrant workers stay in a so-called ‘training centre’ owned by their brokering agency until they get an employer overseas. The maximum duration at a training centre is supposed to be three months. Whilst staying there, they learn to cook and use ‘modern’ appliances, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, or dishwashers. They also learn the language spoken in the place where they are going, such as Cantonese in Hong Kong or Mandarin in Taiwan. However, what the ‘training’ actually involved was to clean the owner’s house, cook for their family and iron their clothes. In return, they charged us fees for lodging and food. I could not file a protest against them. If I did, the agency would cancel my contract and charge me service fees. During the training, their repeated message is to ‘be obedient’: being obedient towards our employers will make our lives easier, they said.

Workers also undertake medical check-ups and, as a result, they may be pronounced ‘fit’ or ‘unfit’. If one is pronounced unfit, she may become fit a few days later. Female workers also receive a contraception jab so they will not become pregnant. This is partly because the law in Indonesia prohibits a pregnant woman from working overseas. It is also because a pregnant woman may be dismissed by her employer, regardless of whether maternity in the host country is protected; or she may be repatriated by her host government if migrant women giving birth is not allowed. If dismissal or repatriation happens, the brokering agency loses income, so they will try to prevent that from happening. After all, people are big money. Some of these workers have little knowledge of the effect of the contraception on their health and fertility, and neither the agencies nor brokers tell them about its impact.

I stayed the centre for five months because they could not find me an employer sooner. My agency asked me to sign various documents without giving me a chance to read them. After arriving in Hong Kong, I learned that the documents included information about salary deduction: to pay back my debt, which was my recruitment fee, my salaries of the first four months were deducted. The local broker also told me that because I was a first-timer, my salary was only half of the statutory salary. It was challenging to get sufficient and accurate information regarding the workplace in Hong Kong, partly because returned migrant workers rarely talked about their experiences abroad. We have been brainwashed by brokers and agencies that we must be obedient. If we argued, we would be categorised as ‘unfit’ by them. Being seen as ‘unfit’ makes it difficult for us to get another overseas contract. Brokers and agencies often push workers to tell success stories instead of revealing the truth. This is part of the industry’s propaganda. Portraying a successful outcome would help workers securing future job opportunities from brokers and agencies.

With little information or knowledge, I experienced culture shock when first arriving in Hong Kong. It was a pretty cold winter, and I did not bring a single warm coat in my suitcase. I survived by wearing three layers of blouses. In the first few weeks after my arrival, due to the salary deduction, I did not have money to buy food. An Indonesian worker in my neighbourhood took pity on me and gave me some food. I also found it challenging to understand the language and the accent of the local people. Soon I was told that my employer was going to move to another country, and the agency told me to return to Indonesia before getting a new employer. In this way, they could charge me another recruitment fee. However, according to the law in Hong Kong, migrant workers can stay, find a new employer and renew their contract in Hong Kong without returning to their home country. So I went back to Indonesia. My agency was going to charge me the same fee as before, but I would not let this happen again. I negotiated with them and eventually I was able to reduce the salary deduction to the first three months and to have one day off every Sunday. This shows how arbitrary this deduction business is. Having one to two days off a week is our right, and I urge other workers to protect their rights.

With a new contract, I returned to Hong Kong for the second time. On my day off, I went to Victoria Park with other Indonesian workers. With Indonesian workers gathering for leisure, some migrant worker associations organised meetings there. The most remarkable was an event organised by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Association in Hong Kong or Asosiasi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (ATKI) Hong Kong. The association campaigns to protect migrant workers’ human rights. A powerful speech given by the orator inspired me; I reflected upon my experience as a victim of abuse. After the speech, I joined the association and became actively involved in promoting migrant workers’ rights. I learned from the association about laws and protection available in Hong Kong and Indonesia; I helped educate other workers about their rights.

After working for more than ten years in Hong Kong, I decided to return for good to Indonesia. My experiences in Hong Kong helped me set up Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia (Kabar Bumi) or Families of Indonesian Migrant Workers. It is an association for migrant returnees and their families. I include families of migrant workers in this association because family is the first place where workers seek and receive support as their inner circle. Some female migrant workers leave their spouses and children in Indonesia, making a family-based association essential. In addition to promoting migrant workers’ rights and protection, Kabar Bumi also empowers migrant workers through entrepreneurship and counselling.

To end my story here, if there is only one message I could pass onto you, then I would say, “a migrant worker is a human being; we want to be treated with dignity.”

Iweng Karsiwen is a Chair of Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia (Kabar Bumi) or Families of Indonesian Migrant Workers.

Ratih Kabinawa is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Her main academic interest is in transnational politics and Taiwan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She tweets @RatihKabinawa.

Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on migration and the Cold War in East Asia.

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