Only a truly great Indonesian or Filipino leader can bring exploited domestic workers home

Yonden Lhatoo says the mass appeal of the Indonesian and Philippine leaders overseas belies their failure to end the exploitation of their domestic workers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 7:17pm

Don’t you just love it when top politicians jet into town, get you all pumped up, then fly out and nothing happens until their next visit. Rinse and repeat.

Hong Kong’s Indonesian and Filipino communities got a much-needed morale boost recently as their national leaders visited the city, separately, and whipped them up into frenzied celebrations of patriotic pride in their respective town hall meetings.

Both Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte could have been rock stars, the way they were doted upon by fans – mostly hailing from the two countries’ diaspora of female domestic helpers. There was no denying their genuine popularity, as they worked the crowds like vaudeville veterans, posing for selfies, cracking jokes and belting out karaoke tunes.

Watch: President Rodrigo Duterte sings on his visit to Hong Kong

Well, now that the cheering and dancing is over, it’s back to harsh reality. The two crowd-pullers have returned to their presidential palaces, while the many thousands they inspired here for a day or two are back in the cramped homes they share with their employers, second-class citizens trapped in a life of drudgery and exploitation.

I admire these women far more than their macho presidents. There are some 350,000 of them in the city – 156,000 from Indonesia and the rest mostly from the Philippines – and many are sole breadwinners for their families, collectively sending home billions of dollars eked out of their blood, sweat and tears. Many are abused by employers, fleeced by employment agencies and ignored by governments.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong are at the mercy of ruthless agencies. Why do we allow it?

Imagine what it must be like for a mother to leave her own children, for the sake of their survival, and spend most of her life in a foreign land, looking after somebody else’s.

When our reporters asked him what he was going to do about it, Widodo spoke of improving economic conditions in Indonesia and preparing workers with skills needed so that, one day, no citizen would have to leave home for a domestic helper’s job overseas.

Watch: President Joko Widodo’s message to Indonesians working in Hong Kong

He said it would take him more than five years, which sounds rather overoptimistic, given the many other important issues his government has to tackle, but at least he acknowledged the presence of the elephant in the room. Duterte was “too busy” to talk about such mundane matters.

It is a matter of national pride to bring home to a life of love and dignity your mothers, sisters and daughters scattered around the world

Which is why I want to put it to these gentlemen that, while I’m sure they have pressing priorities, it is a matter of national pride and the mark of a man, if you will, to bring home to a life of love and dignity your mothers, sisters and daughters scattered around the world as we speak.

Allow me to rub it in further by reminding everyone that the very backgrounds they hail from demand urgent action in this respect by Messrs Widodo and Duterte. One comes from a culture that is religiously super-protective of its women, while the other is a self-styled stud whose male pride should surely be wounded by the status quo.

We can blame and condemn all we want the countries that fail to protect foreign domestic helpers from abuse and exploitation, but at the end of the day, charity begins at home. What are their own governments doing about it?

I heard the phrase “great leader” being bandied about quite a bit among their communities when the two presidents were in town.

Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but the truly great Indonesian or Filipino leader will be the one who finally brings the women home.

With all due respect to the karaoke-singing, joke-cracking, selfie-taking, crowd-pleasing men of the people who were so impressive when they visited Hong Kong, I suspect that great leader is yet to be born.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post