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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Indonesian domestic helpers’ Hong Kong success stories – how they save and take courses to open businesses back home

The plight of abused migrant workers makes for grim headlines, but for some Indonesians, the years spent working away from home and family can pay off when they return and start their own businesses

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 September, 2017, 9:27am

Life can be grim for a migrant worker in Hong Kong, as graphically illustrated by former Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. Over eight months, she was beaten, forced to sleep on the floor and denied days off by her employer, Law Wan-tung, who was jailed in 2015 for six years on charges that including assault and criminal intimidation.

Hong Kong woman who abused Indonesian maid Erwiana says she can’t understand or afford HK$490,000 legal bill

The plight of abused domestic workers grabs headlines but many of Hong Kong’s 300,000-plus find their time in the city rewarding, living with employers who treat them as family members, and being able to save enough to return home to set up a small business.

Indonesian Fera Nuraini worked in Hong Kong for 10 years before returning home in 2015 with enough savings to start her own food business. Nuraini considers herself lucky – she’d heard about helpers who were overcharged by corrupt recruitment agencies or underpaid by bosses.

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Nuraini, from the East Java regency of Ponorogo, was only 18 when she first heard about overseas opportunities – a neighbour had moved to Hong Kong to become a domestic helper.

“At that time, I had graduated from my vocational high school and found some work in my hometown,” the 32-year-old says. She soon found a job in Hong Kong that paid double the wage she could have earned at home.

The minimum wage for a domestic worker in Hong Kong – now HK$4,310 (US$551) – was incentive enough to stay on in the city. Employers also provide a monthly food allowance of at least HK$1,037.

By contrast, most domestic workers in Indonesia earn only between US$157 and US$224 a month.

Nuraini saved hard and returned home each year to see family and friends. “I did not have any children or a husband that I needed to take care of, so I could save even more money,” she says.

Investments in gold paid off and she bought land in Indonesia – the first investment her family has ever made, and one she will keep long-term.

In her first year back home she tried various ventures but in August 2016 started her own food business processing cassava – a sweet root vegetable commonly grown around her village – into thiwul that can be used as a rice substitute.

“To my surprise, my thiwul business is now paying for my monthly expenses, and even more,” Nuraini says. Her business has also found a customer base in Hong Kong, thanks to a network of friends and former colleagues. She plans to expand into Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

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Indonesian domestic worker Siti Maryam is another success story. During her nine years in Hong Kong, she decided she would become a hairdresser, after her employer had asked if she wanted to help out in her hair salon. Maryam paid for professional training and after returning to Indonesia in 2009, opened a salon in her hometown of Trenggalek, in East Java.

Maryam received the Indonesian Migrant Workers Award in 2010, courtesy of the Jakarta-based NGO Migrant Care, and gained national recognition after appearing on a popular television talk show.

Nelis, a 50-year-old domestic worker from Malang, East Java, has been working in Hong Kong for 24 years and also hopes to open a food outlet when she eventually returns to Indonesia.

Nelis, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, says her employers treat her as a family member, providing her with three meals a day.

“Compared to Indonesia, obviously Hong Kong offers a greater salary. But to say that it’s enough depends on your needs,” she says.

Nelis left her two-year-old son with her now deceased mother. Today, he is 26 years old and married, and still living in Malang. Nelis stays with his family when she visits for holidays.

Nelis says she feels she has her own family in Hong Kong and sees no immediate reason to return to Indonesia.

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Both Nelis and Nuraini acknowledge that they have been fortunate.

A report, “Modern Slavery in East Asia” published last year by international social enterprise Farsight, found that only 6 per cent of migrant domestic workers return home feeling they have saved enough money. Ten per cent return with nothing, and of these, three per cent still owe money to recruiters.

The unlucky ones – who have suffered at the hands of employers or been cheated by employment agencies – have little chance to grab new opportunities when they return home.

According to rights group Justice Centre Hong Kong, Indonesians make up 41 per cent of the city’s 336,000 migrant domestic workers.

A 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict stated that many Indonesian overseas employment agencies offered the services of domestic workers cheaply to remain competitive with those from the Philippines. The report added that this contributed to many Indonesian domestic workers being underpaid. A 2012 report by the institute had found that almost 30 per cent of Indonesian domestic helpers surveyed were paid below the minimum wage.

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Hariyanto, chairman of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, said earlier this year that many Indonesians who work in Hong Kong are asked to pay from HK$17,500 to HK$23,300 to private employment agencies or recruitment firms in the city.

“In the Ministry of Labour’s regulations, Indonesian migrant domestic workers are required to pay about HK$8,400,” he said. “Around 93 per cent out of 215 reported cases of Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong are related to violations of agreements that forced workers to pay more than they should have.”

Still, Indonesian women continue to try their luck in Hong Kong for the relatively high salary.

Data from Justice Centre Hong Kong shows that only 58.3 per cent of migrant domestic helpers have finished secondary education. Twenty-three per cent of those graduated from colleges and 4.2 per cent from universities.

The centre has no statistics linking education level and the likelihood of success for former migrant domestic workers. Nuraini, however, attributes the success of her thiwul business in part to the formal education she received. Although it didn’t initially help her get a good job in Indonesia, she now appreciates how education has enabled her to plan, manage and strategise a successful business.