Hong Kong domestic helper looks to change attitudes towards migrants – using the world’s biggest stage
Indonesian Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, will be the only speaker from Hong Kong at a curtain raiser for the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York
A Hong Kong-based Indonesian domestic helper and labour rights activist will draw global attention to the plight of exploited workers as the city’s only representative invited to address the United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday.
Eni Lestari, who chairs the International Migrants Alliance, has three minutes to make an impact at the event, which marks the first time the UN General Assembly has called for a summit at the heads of state and government level on large movements of refugees and migrants.
“I don’t expect that I will change the whole situation of migrants with a three-minute speech,” she told the Sunday Morning Post.
“But I hope it will remind the world leaders about the reality that migrant workers face on the ground and that they should involve the migrant workers when they make the policies.”
Migrant workers account for 150 million of the world’s 244 million international migrants, according to the International Labour Organisation.
“We are an invisible and voiceless community and never once has the government talked to us when deciding on immigration polices,” she said. “With this UN summit, we hope that will change, at least that there will be bigger participation of migrant workers in policymaking, whether it’s regional, national or international policies.”
Lestari arrived in Hong Kong in 2000 after the Asian financial crisis took away her hopes of going to college, falling victim to labour exploitation in the first seven months.
Sixteen years later, she finds the situation of domestic helpers in Hong Kong has improved – but only up to a certain extent.
Watch: Hong Kong domestic workers demand justice
“There is an improvement of knowledge, people are more aware of the law, there are more institutions supporting domestic workers and the government has issued information in different languages, but not in terms of regulations – the Hong Kong government still insists a helper should always be a helper,” Lestari said.
Despite her negative experience when she first arrived, she said “there are lots of good people in Hong Kong”. The problem “is that the bad people have the regulations on their side ... If regulations change, employers will change”, she added.
From the Hong Kong government, she called for equal rights, along with “more services and protection for domestic workers”, a crackdown on agencies that overcharge, regulation of working hours, and a minimum wage increase from HK$4,210 to HK$5,000 a month.
Lestari also suggested the Indonesian government allow direct hiring instead of forcing domestic helpers to pay fees to agencies – a requirement for their contracts to be processed.
The exploitation of workers in both their home and host countries would stop only with long-term solutions, Lestari noted. “I am talking about solutions that address poverty, create schools, jobs, give equal opportunities to workers in their own countries … We want to change the whole forced migration thing. It should be an option,” she said.
However, Lestari conceded they were a long way off from achieving such goals. “In the meantime, we want to appeal to governments to recognise our rights at different levels … Do not treat migrant workers as a source of profit, as slaves,” she said.
Some 1,900 people are expected to attend the conference on Monday, including presidents and prime ministers of the UN member states. The Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants, Indonesian Migrant Workers Union and Justice Centre were the three other local organisations invited to join the summit.
Piya Muqit, director of Justice Centre, a non-profit human rights organisation which campaigns for the rights of refugees in Hong Kong, said she intended to call for a joint effort to tackle the current mass movement of refugees. “The East Asian countries should take responsibility in this global issue. That’s something we will be advocating for,” she said.
There are more than 330,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong. As of June this year, the city had 11,169 outstanding claims from asylum seekers.