From Taiwan to Macau in 16 Years: A Domestic Worker’s Migration Biography

Narrated by Yosa Wariyanti, written by Isabelle Cheng.

Image credit: Public Domain

I started working abroad in 2001. A broker came to my home and told me that I could earn more money abroad. I could go to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia. I decided to go to Taiwan rather than to Malaysia or Saudi Arabia because the salary in Taiwan was the highest. I also heard about abuse in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. My auntie returned from Saudi Arabia and told me how her employer hit her. The broker took me to a recruitment agency in Jakarta for training. Over there, prospective domestic workers like myself learn how to cook, clean, look after the elderly and children, and speak Mandarin since people in Taiwan speak Mandarin. Before I went to Taiwan, I knew nothing about the place, my contract, or my work, but I met one woman who had worked in Taiwan before. She knew the public transport in Taipei very well. She gave me her contact number and told me that I could run away from my employer and earn more money at a factory.

After spending seven months at the training centre, I finally arrived in Taiwan. I was only 20 years old. I worked for a good family, but I kept thinking of earning a higher salary. My employer paid my salary to the Taiwanese agency partnered with my Indonesian agency, and I saw how much the Taiwanese agency deducted my salary. Four months later, I ran away. I went to an agency specialising in finding jobs for runaways, but they did not find a job for me. After a few days, without a job, I called my employer, and they sent me to the Taiwanese agency, which sent me back to Indonesia. How much had I earned in Taiwan? The Indonesian agency gave me 100,000 rupiah, roughly £10, which was not enough to return from Jakarta to my home.

Without a job, I got married, and when my daughter was 18 months old, I went to Singapore because I could learn to speak English and then go to Hong Kong. I did not want to go to Saudi Arabia because of potential abuse and because speaking Arabic would not help me get a job elsewhere. So, from Singapore, I went to Hong Kong; from Hong Kong, I came to Macau after grandfather in Hong Kong passed away.

People like me who have been to Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau can become brokers. Several Indonesian brokers in Macau are experienced migrant workers. This is partly because there is no agreement between Macau and Indonesia on the recruitment of migrant workers. So, this creates opportunities for experienced migrants to make a profit. They tell people, ‘I’ve found a job for you, all you need to do is to come here’. In fact, Indonesian workers come to Macau on a tourist visa, and they must find an employer in one month. After an agency finds them work, the agency will take a deduction from their salary, which is shared between the agency and the broker. Unlike migrant workers in the formal sector working in a hotel, spa or casino, domestic workers are not protected by a standard contract, and our employers can decide how much to pay. Agencies charge us a lot of money, usually between 14,000 and 15,000 dollars (MOP). If it is a job in the formal sector and if the salary is, for example, 7,000 dollars (MOP), then we must pay the agency a fee of twice that amount, which is deducted from our salary. Paying such a large amount and having deductions from our salary is our biggest worry. Once migrant workers have secured a contract with the employer, they go to the Immigration Department to change their legal status, which includes a Work Permit and a temporary residency permit, officially known as ‘Authorisation to Stay for Non-Resident Workers’ (conventionally known as Blue Card). So, what the brokers say is wrong, but it is so easy for Indonesian people to believe what they hear from these brokers!

I always try to tell people what the correct information is and how not to go the wrong way about getting a job. There is so much exploitation that I want to help migrant workers know about their rights. My organisation, the Indonesian Migrant Worker Union in Macau (IMWU), was established 13 years ago in 2008. We help migrant workers who lost their jobs, encountered problems with their employers or did not know about their rights under labour laws. We help Indonesian workers and those from the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and other countries.

Although I am a domestic worker, I do not live with my employer. Instead, I rent a house and use it as an IMWU office and shelter. We offer computer skills and language classes, including Cantonese, English, and Mandarin classes. Local employers and businesses speak Cantonese, international tourists speak English, and Mandarin is useful for dealing with tourists from China. I used to rent a big house but now, affected by the pandemic, I have less money and have moved to a smaller house, but all of our activities have continued. The IMWU has no licence to run our community work, but my work has connected me with some local people and associations who can help us.

The pandemic hit migrant workers really hard. Those who worked in the formal sector became jobless because these businesses were closed. Some companies withdrew their sponsorship for their work permits; this cut short the validity of their visas. Some did not have any income for four months; others were out of work for a whole year. Those who lost their jobs had to decide whether to stay or return home. There were more than 5,600 Indonesian workers in Macau last year before the pandemic, but 2,000 have already left. In addition, 8,000 Filipino workers also left.

During the two-week lockdown in February last year, my employer asked me to stay with them, and I ended up doing more cleaning and cooking and went out shopping for them. It was scary since people were not allowed to go out; the police would question anyone on the street. Some domestic workers came to seek advice from us: they refused to stay in their employers’ houses, but their employers threatened them with the withdrawal of their work permits, and they would not be allowed to stay in Macau. Only workers hired by businesses are employed with a standard contract; domestic workers are not, so their employment and residency in Macau is not secure.

During the two-month lockdown of last February and March, I started to call for donations to help those who were out of work. I received donations from Indonesian people in Indonesia, Macau, and Hong Kong. During the first wave of infection, people in Macau panicked when there was a shortage of facemasks. Macau residents and Blue Cardholders were eligible to buy facemasks. But migrant workers on a tourist visa or those waiting for their visa found it very difficult to purchase facemasks. So, we gave away free facemasks donated to us because, at that time, that was what we needed most.

Towards the end of March, we began to organise fundraising and used donated money to buy food using Facebook. I made a list of people who needed them and told them to collect food from us. We domestic workers often finish work around 9–10 pm. Since we do not live with our employers, we start working on these donations after we go home. For myself, I finish work at midnight, and I often carried on working on arranging donations till 3 am. Local organisations and churches also gave us donations. It is very touching that they reached out and helped us. Last month (August), the government announced another two-week lockdown between 4 and 18 August. To this day, there is still one local organisation giving us rice, noodles, biscuits, etc. Sadly, public attitudes towards migrant workers did not change. People thought domestic workers from Indonesia, or the Philippines were dirty or carrying the virus because a very small number of them tested positive. Although the lockdown only lasted two weeks last February, the impact has continued. There are still people who have no jobs, cannot go home or have no food. At IMWU, we were all exhausted, but we were very proud that we could help others.

I have spent a total of 16 years abroad. When we return home, we have our savings, and we may open businesses. But businesses do not always go well. It is difficult for us to find jobs because we do not have good education or professional certificates. No one would hire us. Soon my daughter will go to university. I want to give her a good education. I need to work for at least another five years to pay for her tuition fees. So, I will just go on, and on, and on working abroad.

Yosa Wariyanti is the Chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Worker Union.

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 interests are marriage and labour migration in East Asia.

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