Migrants in Hong Kong: “This is modern slavery!”

Interview with Sringatin of the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (IMWU) in Hong Kong

There are 131,000 Indonesians working as domestic workers in Hong Kong. They are the biggest single group of migrant workers in the city. Sringatin is one of this army of domestic workers who are well known for their long hours of work and extremely low wages. At 29 years old, she is also chairperson of IMWU (Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union), which is fighting for a fairer deal for these women workers. I met her at the union’s office, bustling with activity at 10am on a Sunday morning, the only day off for these workers.

“On 7 March we will march to the Indonesian Consulate in Hong Kong, to continue our campaign for a blacklist of those recruitment agencies that violate migrants’ rights,” she explains.

There is a massive problem of agencies illegally overcharging workers – demanding far more than the fee they are entitled to under law. Regulation of these companies by the government is very lax compared to the tough rules imposed on migrants themselves. If a migrant domestic worker quits her job, she has just 14 days to find another or face deportation from Hong Kong.

“The agency fee – if the rules are followed – should only be 10 percent of the first month’s salary, or 586 HK dollars. But some of the agencies will ask domestic workers to pay more. We know of cases where they have demanded between 7,000 and 20,000 HK dollars [HK$20,000 = 17,600 RMB, US$2,576],” says Sringatin.

This leads to a situation where a migrant domestic worker can spend up to seven months’ wages just paying off the recruitment agency fee. “It’s modern slavery”, she tells me. “Domestic workers also have their documents such as passport or ID card withheld by the agency or the employer. It’s a big problem in Hong Kong.”

Withholding these documents is a convenient and completely illegal way for agencies or employers to get the upper hand on migrant workers. “If the agency or employer are withholding these documents it is against the law. The passport is like our identity. It makes it very difficult for the domestic worker if they want to go to the immigration or labour departments.”

Because Hong Kong’s domestic workers only get time off on Sundays, they will commemorate International Women’s Day one day early, on 7 March. Altogether, thousands will congregate for a number of protest actions and rallies around the city. The IMWU works closely with other migrant organisations representing Filipino, Nepalese, Thai and other workers, and is an affiliate to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. When they march from Victoria Park to the Indonesian Consulate they will take a list of demands in addition to demanding the blacklisting of law-breaking agencies. They also face widespread problems of underpayment and excessive working hours. Then there is the issue of Hong Kong’s minimum wage law, not even passed yet, despite years of pressure from unions and public opinion. The government has already stated it will exclude domestic workers from the new law.

“Our union did research last year. We found that 61 percent of Indonesian domestic workers had their documents withheld. We also found that 31 percent were underpaid, and 27 percent had no holidays. The legal minimum wage for domestic workers in Hong Kong is 3,580 HK dollars, but in some cases the actual wage was as low as 1,800 [= 1,580 RMB, US$232]. The average working day for Indonesian domestic workers is 16 hours. IMWU research found that only 2 percent of domestic workers work an 8-hour day.”

Migrants like other low paid workers have been badly hit by the global crisis. As Sringatin explains, this is one of the main arguments of the Hong Kong government in claiming it cannot afford to include migrant workers under the coming minimum wage law. Back home in Indonesia the crisis has also taken its toll. When our discussion turns to Indonesia and the government of President “SBY” (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) there are scowls on the faces of several women in the union office. His government has announced a target to get 1.25 trillion rupiahs in remittances every year from Indonesia’s overseas workers. It is a policy of exporting labour, Sringatin explains.

“Indonesia is very rich country in terms of resources, but the system of the leaders – from Suharto to SBY – has made the people poorer. The government policies don’t create jobs, so people must go abroad.”

In Hong Kong these workers can make a little money to send home to their families, but in exchange for years of hard labour, long hours, separation from loved ones, and few openings for any kind of social or private life. The possibility to study and find better paid work is almost non-existent. “Most of us have not been through secondary high school, so we cannot get into further education. In Indonesia the cost of a college education is very high today – it is only for the rich!”

The IMWU’s nine-person committee are all unpaid volunteers – Sringatin herself is a domestic worker. During the little free time they get, these women are active to build a union and thereby give migrant workers a voice and a means to fight their oppression.

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March 2010