Fed up with human trafficking, Hong Kong migrant workers hold vigil demanding justice
Protest over ‘rampant’ problem comes two weeks after Indonesian domestic helper died in Malaysia reportedly following torture by her employer
Almost 500 people, including migrant workers from Indonesia and several Hongkongers, gathered in Causeway Bay on Sunday for a candlelight vigil and prayed for victims of human trafficking after the shocking death of a young Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia.
During the gathering on Paterson Street, they also demanded justice and voiced outrage over recent high-profile cases.
Organisers said 490 people attended the one and a half hour protest, which was sparked by the death of Adelina Lisao, a domestic worker in Penang, reportedly following torture by her employer.
“This is another Erwiana case. It shows the level of abuse and violence domestic workers face,” said Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance. “How many more victims have to suffer and die?”
The NGO leader was referring to Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a former Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who in 2014 revealed she had been subjected to six months of physical abuse at the hands of her local employer.
“We want to express our outrage and call for action. Despite of all the conventions and international treaties, it seems the situation is declining,” Lestari said. “Human trafficking is rampant.”
Lisao, a domestic worker in Penang, died on February 11 of multiple organ failure just a day after being rescued by a migrant workers’ protection group. She reportedly faced torture for more than a month and was forced to sleep outside with her employers’ dog.
Her case sparked renewed debate about the vulnerability of migrant workers in the region.
“We want to send a strong message to the government that we are very angry at the lack of protection we currently have,” said Lestari, an Indonesian and also a domestic helper. “Both Malaysia and Indonesia should be held accountable.”
She called on the two countries to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Domestic Workers Convention, which states helpers should enjoy the same legal protections as any other workers.
“They have to recognise us as workers. We want to be included in the labour ordinance and we should have access to standard benefits,” she added.
The Indonesian government should also enforce the country’s anti-human-trafficking laws, Lestari said, as thousands of cases are not handled properly and traffickers go unpunished.
“There has to be a crackdown on corrupt officials and these syndicates that traffic people.”
But she said banning the export of Indonesian workers to Malaysia would not solve the problem.
“In fact, it makes it worse. Because of the poverty, people are forced to use illegal channels. It increases the smuggling and trafficking of people.”
The Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian president Joko Widodo was receptive to the idea of halting the recruitment of Indonesian domestic workers for Malaysia, and restructuring the employment administration process.
“The issue is that our government does not ensure our legal protection in Indonesia and in receiving countries,” Lestari said. “There should be a mechanism to complain. Consulates should create extra services outside office hours, do outreach in different areas, and set up a 24-hour hotline.”
Catholic priest Heribertus Hadiarto, who attended the event, said both the migrant workers’ home and host countries needed to put protections for these workers into practice.
“The home country needs to ensure that the workers moving overseas are safe and not underage,” he said.
Hadiarto added the government could review the requirement that domestic workers must live with their employers.
Foreign domestic helpers have long called for the relaxation of the rule introduced in April 2003.
Many claim the arrangement heightens the risk of abuse, but the government maintained that the requirement is an essential feature of the importation scheme designed and developed to meet the demand for live-in domestic service.
The government also countered that lifting the rule could have serious repercussions for Hong Kong’s economy and society.
A Hongkonger, who wished to be known as Esther, said she felt sad and angry about what happened to Lisao, adding that there were many such cases in Hong Kong besides Erwiana’s case.
“I hope locals will be aware of the situation too,” she said.
Esther pointed to the case of a Elis Kurniasih, 33, an Indonesian domestic worker who died after she was crushed by a 60kg slab of concrete while sleeping on the balcony of a guest house run by her employment agency.
The protesters prayed for the victims of human trafficking with representatives from different religions, including Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
They also commemorated the victims with songs including Amazing Grace.
According to migrant groups in Hong Kong, 62 other victims of human trafficking from East Nusa Tenggara – the same region as Lisao came from – died last year.
There are about 250,000 domestic workers in Malaysia, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. Hong Kong has about 370,000 workers total.
“We stand with all the victims of human trafficking,” Lestari said. “This is not just one country’s problem.”
Earlier this month the body of a Filipino domestic worker was found in a freezer at an old flat in Kuwait. The case prompted Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to order a ban on the deployment of workers to that country.
In July last year, a domestic worker from the Philippines was found dead in Shenzhen allegedly after her Hong Kong employers sent her to work a few days in the mainland Chinese city. The authorities referred to the tragedy as a “suspected case of human trafficking”.