The first time I met Elysa was a rainy, gloomy Sunday in Hong Kong. She introduced me to the union that she is leading: a dozen of them sitting on a few patches of plastic tablecloth on the crowded floor along with many other groups of Indonesian migrant domestic workers, on the second floor of a fresh market in Causeway Bay. The sky was depressing and the rain was attacking from every direction: entrenching the little island of plastic tablecloth and threatening to take on more.

The moment we entered their sight, they started to stand up and greet Elysa. There was nothing dramatic and the ambiance was not too heavy nor too light – subtle. What lingered in my mind were their glaring eyes: a stream of something pure, warm, directed at her. I was not able to identify what that was until later: trust, and specifically, trust in a leader.

Photo: Annabelle Zhang.

“This is my only chance.”

Elysa was born and raised in a farming and fishing village surrounded by volcanoes in Blitar, Java Timur, Indonesia, where the grave of Sukarno, the first President of Indonesia is.

At 17, she went to Surabaya for school in the day and worked at a factory at night. She ran away from home to challenge the destiny of arranged marriage common to many other girls her age. She had to run away because her parents did not like the idea of her continuing her education.

At 19, she was raped by the guy who then became her first husband, yet left her after the wedding. He married a woman of his family’s choice when Elysa was seven months pregnant. It was the year that she left school, where she has always been longing to return ever since.

After giving birth to her first daughter, Elysa went to Taiwan to work as a domestic worker. In three days she memorised 10 pages of Mandarin and managed to converse with the agency in Taiwan to answer questions such as: how old are you? Do you like working with the elderly? Then she picked up Mandarin and became fluent in conversation in one month, while working for a general in Taiwan.

When she switched to Mandarin to give the examples above, I hardly noticed any accent.

“How did you manage to do that?” I asked.

“This was my only chance and I had to seize it,” she said.

“I am not happy with the arrangement.”

Elysa spent three relatively happy years in Taiwan, where she was treated like a family member, before she went back to Indonesia to marry the man of her family’s choice. This man did not run away. On the other end of the spectrum, he completely depended on, if not depleted, her financially: he would not work and gambled all the time.

Elysa asked for a divorce in 2005 but the man would not sign. Since she was not happy with her second marriage, after she had her second daughter, she went back to Taiwan to continue working as a domestic worker. While Elysa was working thousands of miles away from home, her second husband demanded money from her using their daughter as an excuse.

The man finally agreed to sign the papers in 2011. By that time, Elysa had saved enough to build a new house from scratch for her life with two daughters.

“I lost everything and I had to go back.”

Elysa started a fish business before she had time to enjoy her reunion with her three “daughters”: two daughters of her own and her little sister. In 2001, Elysa’s mother passed away and in 2006 her father remarried. Elysa’s youngest sister, who is the same age as her first daughter, came to stay with her. She had to support three girls all on her own.

Then came a day when her business partner ran away with the money, so that she lost everything and had to start from zero.

“This is terrible discrimination. She abused and exploited me.”

In 2015 Elysa came to Hong Kong to work as domestic worker, not expecting to suffer through the inhumane treatment that she later recounted with rage and tears.

“She made me sleep with the dog on the floor, and gave me expired food. She made me take care of three children and work non-stop. She would ask me to do something whenever she saw me taking a break. Worst of all, she would talk nasty in my face, saying things like ‘Indonesians are stupid.’ She did not know that I understood what she was saying.”

Photo: Annabelle Zhang.

“I fought with my employer, the agencies and negotiated with the consulate.”

Upon their arrival, the local agency told her and other Indonesian workers that they were responsible for loans and had to pay the agency, without any written agreement or further explanation. Whenever she went to the Hong Kong or  Indonesian agency for clarification, the agency would kick the ball to the other agency.

“This is common practice for all the agencies,” she said.

The legal commission charge is 10% on the first month and nothing afterwards. However, Elysa was charged HK$2500 out of HK$4110 per month for six months.

“The consulate does nothing to protect us. I suspect that they tolerated the agencies’ illegal practices.”

“How to make policy? We need to fight together.”

Elysa is now leading Serikat Buruh Migrant Indonesia (SBMI) HK – Indonesian Migrant Workers Union Hong Kong. Since December 2015, Elysa has received at least 84 cases seeking her help, including cases involving slavery and abuse by employers in the past six months. The additional challenge lies in the fact that when workers have active cases, they are not allowed to work – leaving them unable to support themselves financially, not to mention their families back in Indonesia.

At the last gathering that I joined, I witnessed how they went up and agreed to their mission: to provide migrant workers and their families with education, a program on immigration, financial support and legal support.

“Have you worked with any NGOs?” I asked.

“I have tried before. These NGOs do not cooperate with the migrant workers and do not allow workers to follow up once the NGOs pick up the case. Indonesian migrant workers are afraid to face, not to mention fight with, the agency. We migrant workers have to work together in order to support our family and the community. Migrant workers have to be smart. I don’t want their money wasted by themselves or their relatives and then they come back to Hong Kong to work again. We need to change the policy to protect migrant workers.”

“I felt sad when I cannot provide support and I am concerned about how to help them.”

Elysa is currently in Hong Kong on a tourist visa. To stay longer, her only option would be to obtain a migrant domestic worker’s visa. In order to get that visa, she then has to get a contract as a domestic worker. But if she works as a domestic worker, she will not be able to advocate for the other workers.

“It’s always 24-hour work for domestic workers,” she said.

Photo: Annabelle Zhang.

“I had a dream too.”

Elysa’s younger sister wanted to go to college this year, but Elysa had to tell her, “not this year, maybe next year.”

Elysa’s first daughter wants to become a doctor and is currently studying at medical school.

I asked her what her dream is.

“My childhood dream was to learn English, which was not offered at school then, so I learned all by myself. I wanted to finish the degree and get a job but that dream was long gone since the [pause, which I inferred to be “rape”]. Now I dream of continuing my studies one day. I have already got an offer from a school in Indonesia for this dream but I cannot accept the offer because I want to help the community.”

Annabelle Zhang

Annabelle arrived in Hong Kong on a hot Saturday in the summer of 2015, after 15 hours in the air. The next day, on her way to explore her new workplace, she was shocked by the scene on the elevated pathway in Central. After digging into what's behind the scene, she decided to write about the stories of the migrant domestic workers as a way to raise awareness about the underpinning issues and call for action in the community.