Translation by Jeffrey Yeung and Jaspar Chan

Building a strong labour movement can be especially difficult for migrant workers. Not only are roving migrant workers unable to settle for long periods in their host countries, they may also lack the necessary awareness and connections needed to secure their rights. As such, many silently endure exploitative work contracts.

Yet despite their status as second-class citizens, Hong Kong’s community of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) has engaged in a considerable degree of grassroots organisation, articulating politics that are more progressive than many local labour movements.

Bethune House has played a significant role in building and sustaining the migrant workers’ movement. The shelter, which was set up by Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW), provides emergency services for FDWs and offers a temporary refuge for those who have left, and are perhaps taking legal action against, their exploitative employers.

foreign domestic workers march
Foreign domestic workers (FDWs) march in solidarity ahead of International Migrants Day 2015. Photo: Adrian Lo.

Indonesian migrant worker and activist-organiser Eni Lestari has been deeply impacted by her time at Bethune. She is the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), and has been invited to speak on behalf of immigrants at UN Summits.

In 2000, she, along with other Indonesian migrant workers, established the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Associasi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, ATKI, later renamed to Associasi Buruh Migran Indonesia). It was one of the first organisations to be established by the Indonesian migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong, with its membership exceeding two hundred today.

Eni’s story

Hailing from a small village in eastern Java, Eni’s parents worked as small-time retailers prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which ruined the Indonesian economy and left their family heavily in debt.

As a result, Eni was unable to continue her studies after high school. And so she set out to find work instead, trying her hand at various jobs, from making hair for children’s dolls at home, selling food, to working as a cleaner in the city. But she remained underemployed. Her income remained consistently low – for instance, her job as a cleaner only brought in HK$200-300 a month.

In 1998, Eni resolved to go abroad in search of better work opportunities – a course of action to which her parents initially opposed. But, in time, they came to accept Eni’s decision on the condition that she avoided working in the Middle East, which they deemed dangerous.

She ultimately opted to work in Hong Kong, on the basis that there would be one legally mandated rest day a week, a guarantee which Singapore lacked.

domestic workers migrant slavery indonesian
Migrant worker activist Eni Lestari. Photo: Dan Garrett.

Eni’s agency initially barred her from working in Hong Kong, claiming that such jobs were reserved for those with the appropriate work experience. She fought hard for the right to be sent to to the city, emphasising to the agency her proficiency in English.

After clearing the agency’s examinations, she was finally allowed to work in Hong Kong. She had planned to stay for four years. Eni would dedicate her wages for the first two years to repaying her debt to the agency, and the latter two years would go to her siblings’ education. Life took a different turn, however, when she arrived in 1999.

Her first employer flat-out denied her food, the weekly rest day, and paid her a monthly wage of HK$1,800 – less than half the legal minimum allowable wage.

She was unaware that these practices were illegal, and it was not until her fifth month in Hong Kong that her friends would discover the extent of her plight.

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After contacting MFMW, she learned more about her rights and – on the advice of MFMW – she gathered evidence of her exploitation so that her case could be investigated by the Labour Department. She then fled her employer’s home and took refuge at Bethune House.

On the road to activism

Eni’s stay at the refuge would only last five months – a deceptively short period of time which belies the profound impact the brief stay would have on her.

Due to her proficiency in English, Eni was tasked as a translator, facilitating communication between local volunteers and Indonesian FDWs at Bethune, as well as taking part in organising classes aimed at educating FDWs about their rights in Hong Kong.

See also: ‘Job insecurity, discrimination, abuse’: Hong Kong’s domestic workers demand better working conditions

Over time, Eni would become familiar with Hong Kong’s FDW employment system and human rights issues, travelling around Hong Kong and participating regularly in worker advocacy events.

Most importantly, Eni was deeply impressed by Bethune’s philosophy of effecting change from the bottom-up through the self-organisation of the oppressed. She thought that if the problems of migrant workers were to be solved, there would be no one better positioned to do so than themselves.

domestic worker helper
Like many similar training centres, High Vision offers government accredited courses for migrant domestic workers. The training includes household duties such as cleaning and cooking. File photo: Robert Godden.

When we asked Eni how Bethune imparted this belief onto her, she replied: “[W]hen Bethune offers aid to those in need, they do not ask to be compensated monetarily or through volunteer work. I was quite surprised, since I have never encountered people with this sort of mentality.”

“The workers running Bethune don’t view themselves as experts dealing with cases. They constantly encourage us to believe in ourselves to achieve meaningful changes – so yeah, it was really my own efforts that eventually resolved my dispute with my former employer!”

With a laugh, Eni continued: “Other NGOs are organised hierarchically; they treat us like clients and only offer us legal advice. At Bethune, even if you make mistakes, they would smile, and then find ways to work together with you to solve your problems. Because I felt accepted and eventually came to believe in their principles, I began to try to educate others.”

At the time, not many Indonesian FDWs were aware of the rights they had in Hong Kong, Eni said. She and her friends would go to Victoria Park on Sundays to disseminate among FDWs the knowledge they had acquired, and promote Bethune’s query hotline for workers to turn to should they run into any problems.

Itching to do more for the migrant workers in the city, she established ATKI in October 2000, with an initial membership of twenty-five, half of whom were FDWs who had previously stayed at Bethune. Needless to say, they did not view themselves as passive victims in need of aid, but rather as proactive organisers.

Aid from Bethune House

Building a labour organisation from the ground up will always be difficult, especially for one organised by migrant workers, who will invariably face problems that locals don’t have to deal with.

At first, ATKI-organised activities in Causeway Bay were lively, with cultural celebrations taking place alongside awareness campaigning for workers’ rights.

However, FDW recruitment agencies and the Indonesian consulate eventually sent their employees to harass the organisation. They would unrelentingly question their activities and the nature of their organisation, and even threaten to call the police to put an end to their “illegal” activities.

Fearing the threat of legal action, ATKI found it sensible to re-locate and gather at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Star Ferry. After all, many FDWs were relying on ATKI’s assistance in the lawsuits they had filed against their employers – if ATKI were disbanded, it would negatively impact their well-being.

After a month at the pier, Eni realised that ATKI did not necessarily have to gather there. The staff at Bethune informed her that ATKI’s activities were legal all along.

With a better understanding of the law, ATKI returned to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and – with the support of a Bethune staff member, Edwina – they were able to repel the aggression of ATKI’s harassers.

Throughout ATKI’s efforts to organize migrant workers, Bethune House has consistently provided invaluable material support. Back then, not everyone owned a cell phone and a Nokia cost HK$2,000-3,000 – more than half the monthly salary of an FDW. As a result, ATKI’s hotline was set up in Bethune House.

They used the hotline to communicate with their members and migrant workers who needed help. While they were campaigning for workers’ rights in Victoria Park, ATKI members would encourage the FDWs to contact the hotline if they were encountering any problems, as the organisation had set up a rotation system to answer the phone.

domestic worker
Migrant domestic workers sit on the street in Central, Hong Kong during their one statutory weekly rest day. File photo: Robert Godden.

If there were no ATKI members present, a resident of the shelter would answer the phone and – in the event of serious emergencies – MFMW would be contacted.

In order to service the hotline, Eni would stay at Bethune for many hours. Since she had no computer of her own to handle the paperwork for lawsuits, she would work on the in-house computer.

Later, personal cell phones would slowly proliferate amongst ATKI members and FDWs in need of assistance were able to contact members directly. Were it not for Bethune’s much-needed material support, ATKI would not have been able to grow and develop.

ATKI’s work

In 2000, there was an influx of migrant workers who came to Hong Kong for the very first time. Eni often came across Indonesian FDWs crying by the roadside in Causeway Bay. They knew they were being exploited, yet they didn’t know what to do or who to turn to for help. Many were only permitted a day or two of rest every month.

ATKI’s surveys also revealed that as many as 80 per cent of Indonesian FDWs were underpaid, while the various fees charged by their agencies totalled up to HK$18,000.

Like many FDWs, Eni had, for a long time, no idea that the Indonesian consulate was only a few streets away from where she had been spending her weekends in Causeway Bay. It did not help that the activities organised by a small handful of migrant worker organisations were largely cultural in nature and, apart from the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union, scarcely touched on labour issues.

Therefore, ATKI’s initial members felt the need to organise what they dubbed “our own army”. They sought to do so by training new members to be familiar with the legal rights of FDWs, arming them with the know-how to protest unjust policies. At the time, ATKI had a mobile, awareness-raising booth in Victoria Park that was usually located under the white tarpaulin where the city forums were held.

By word of mouth, more and more people became aware that they could turn to ATKI for help.

Hong Kong Indonesian consulate
Consulate General of Indonesia in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Part of ATKI’s work is centred around providing migrant workers with a political education to help them find their voice and let them know where to seek assistance.

Yet recruitment agencies had, and continue to have, a great deal of control over their migrant workers. Knowing that many prospective FDWs had limited means to access information about their rights as a migrant worker, agencies would inculcate – through their training courses – the message that only they would be able to help FDWs in emergencies.

Agencies would discourage their FDWs from communicating with strangers and fabricate job competition with Filipino migrant workers. Many Indonesian FDWs new to Hong Kong were misled into distrusting strangers, making them docile and reluctant to seek help.

Over the years, ATKI has accumulated lots of experience dealing with exploitative recruitment agencies. For instance, agencies commonly confiscate the travel documents of their FDWs, barring them from reclaiming their documents on their own.

See also: The domestic worker who moonlights as a migrants’ rights protest photographer in Hong Kong

Since Bethune has the expertise to deal with this situation, it has been assigning volunteers to accompany newly arrived FDWs to reclaim their documents. There is simply no knowing what the agencies will do to the FDWs with the gall to reclaim their documents on their own; it is not unheard of for agencies to lock them up and keep them from leaving the city.

Sometimes, when FDWs phone Bethune’s hotline for urgent assistance, volunteers from Bethune would escort them to the police station and financially assist them if needed, before bringing them back to Bethune.

Many of the FDWs who phone Bethune tend to be in trouble with, or abruptly terminated by, their employers. Their agency could forcibly escort them to the airport to ship them back to their home country, so as to prevent any further conflict with their employer.

Without ATKI and Bethune, it would almost be impossible for maligned FDWs to break free from the controlling grip of their agencies.

domestic worker helper
Like many similar training centres, High Vision offers government accredited courses for migrant domestic workers. The training includes household duties such as cleaning and cooking. File photo: Robert Godden.

In addition to providing support directly to migrant workers, ATKI also engages in proactive initiatives. For example, in 2007, ATKI joined other Indonesian workers’ organisations to establish PILAR (Persatuan Bmi Tolak Overcharging, an all-Indonesian alliance against resettlement overcharging), and organised educational forums on related issues.

Overcoming Fears

How does ATKI recruit FDWs who are unaffiliated and uninvolved with Bethune House? Eni said this is not easy.

ATKI members were typically migrant workers who turned to the organisation to deal with their exploitative agency or employer. As they received help from ATKI, they befriended its members, eventually deciding to become part of it. As the politics of some FDWs do not align with that of the leftist ATKI, they may not want to join.

Nonetheless, the organisation encourages workers to set up their own groups. Its members will teach the workers how to organise and engage in their own advocacy activities. For those unwilling to commit full-time to running a formal organisation, ATKI encourages them to aggregate into small support groups on social media.

Most FDWs are well aware that a lack of unity, information, and interpersonal relationships can exacerbate their marginalisation. Only by establishing organisations and a strong support network in the FDW community can it be possible to fight against their oppression.

However, attracting members is also difficult given the risky nature of the venture. Many would rather lead a stable life than to attract the attention of their agency, their employer, and the government. Eni noted that when ATKI members encourage workers to sue their employer who has been underpaying them, many workers commonly respond with: “I can’t do that, or my agency will blacklist me from working in Hong Kong”.

Understandably, yet unfortunately, exploited workers are afraid of biting the capitalist hand that feeds them.

domestic worker helper abuse protest demonstration
File photo: Tom Grundy.

That many Indonesian workers are reluctant to confront their oppressors or become politically involved also has to do with the historical scars left by Suharto’s rule over Indonesia.

In 1965, Suharto, with the aid of the US government, overthrew the democratically-elected Sukarno and became the nation’s second president. Suharto’s 32-year rule was an era full of white terror. He oversaw the massacre of the Communists and innocent civilians who had backed Sukarno to consolidate his power. Putting Indonesian society under the heel of the army, his government often warned people not to engage in political activism. Many prominent trade unionists were either killed, imprisoned, or disappeared.

Consequently, many of those who worked abroad were afraid of being surveilled by the Indonesian military. Their fear has since abated, as many can easily access information online these days.

Even so, those who return to Indonesia to organise politically are still often harassed by the military. It is therefore difficult for organisations to openly discuss politics.

With an entrenched political climate of repression, it is understandable that Indonesians remain wary about political organisations, trade unions, and workers’ rights activism. And it is precisely by capitalising on these deep-set fears that the agencies are able to maintain their control over their FDWs abroad. Helping workers to overcome their apprehension towards political involvement has been a difficult task for ATKI.

Expanding into the wider world

ATKI’s influence has since moved beyond the confines of Hong Kong, having established ATKI-Indonesia and ATKI-Taiwan.

Its Taiwanese branch was formed in 2009 by an intern at the Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants, who frequented Taiwan and ultimately organised Indonesian workers there to form ATKI-Taiwan.

An Indonesian Migrant Domestic Worker march. March 2017. Photo: Asosiasi Buruh Migran Indonesia di Hong Kong (ATKI-HK) via Facebook.

The existence of ATKI-Indonesia, at a glance, may be perplexing: why would workers establish a migrant worker organisation in their home country?

For one, the Indonesian government’s inability to provide a decent life to its subjects, partly due to the structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, forces them to migrate abroad for better job opportunities.

To solve the predicament facing both Indonesia’s youth and migrant workers, Indonesia’s citizens have to be organised to demand better employment opportunities as well as a greater say in political decision making to reverse policies that only benefit the rich. Moreover, ATKI-Indonesia is needed because homecoming migrant workers face a plethora of problems.

The Indonesian government is inclined to view its returning workers as affluent, having worked in places with a high standard of living.

As such, the labour-exporting industry extorts money from them through a variety of different means: recruitment agencies can charge them with extortionate fees for staying at their training centre and for getting insured. And the government can get them to pay more for visa renewals and administrative services. There is even a terminal in Indonesian airports specifically for returning migrant workers to charge them extra fees.

The problems returning migrant workers face do not only come from the labour-exporting industry, but from their families as well.

FDWs can be reticent when it comes to discussing the challenges they face working abroad, because they don’t want their families to worry about them. Indonesians therefore generally do not understand what working abroad entails, such as the extent to which migrant workers are oppressed, as well as Hong Kong’s high living expenses. The workers’ families may be unable to fully appreciate their remittances as a result.

When ATKI talks about these matters, they advise FDWs that they must be honest about their problems with their family. This is partly why they set up ATKI-Indonesia in Jarkarta in 2008. Bethune had a hand in this – from 2003 to 2005, it helped organise meetings to allow ATKI to liaise with migrant workers who had returned home.

Indonesian migrant domestic worker march 2018
An Indonesian Migrant Domestic Worker march. March 2018. Photo: Asosiasi Buruh Migran Indonesia di Hong Kong (ATKI-HK) via Facebook.

By 2015, an alliance of migrant worker organisations, like ATKI and PILAR, would succeed in establishing KABAR BUMI (Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Workers Family) in Indonesia.

Balancing act

All in all, organising migrant workers are carried out under adverse circumstances. When organising, ATKI members have to confront, for themselves and the workers they organise, the traumatic legacy of Suharto’s rule, so as to overcome their inclination to steer clear of political activism.

Furthermore, migrant workers here are isolated, lack resources, and are exploited by their agency, employers, and the government in their home and host country. They face long working hours, having to work six days a week, during which there are no specified working hours due to the live-in rule.

ATKI members can only contribute to their organisation by working from their phones during the few precious hours of free time they have on a weekday. At the end of the day, even with her obligations to ATKI and other organisations, Eni is still a domestic worker.

Since coming to Hong Kong, she has worked under five different employers, and has had to declare that she is a political activist every time she is contracted to a new employer.

Luckily, she has consistently succeeded in finding employers who are supportive of her activist work, and has often managed to work for childless, non-elderly households that have a lighter workload.

Eni Lestari. File photo: United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) screenshot.

The migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong has come very far. Despite all the talk about empowered workers, many community and labour organisations still treat FDWs as their clients with a case to be resolved.

In contrast, Bethune House has remained true to its principle of actually empowering the migrant workers who reside there – from trusting migrant workers to fight their own court cases to providing invaluable assistance to develop ATKI. In turn, ATKI has taken up Bethune’s principle by encouraging workers to self-organise and unite in solidarity, so that they can have a better chance at breaking the complex, interconnected web of problems that FDWs face.

”Bethune House is hosting an urgent fundraising appeal. Click for details.”

How to support Bethune House:

  • Pay online via YouCaring.
  • via Paypal:
  • If paying by check, please make payable to The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd., and send it to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral, 4-8 Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong.
  • Deposit into the bank account #284-8-241309 at Hang Seng Bank, The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd.
  • Go to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral in person.

Worker News is an independent media outlet with a mission to uncover the voices of workers underpinning our city growth and development. It is founded and operated by workers without any government or corporate funding, and is backed solely by member donations, public contributions and NGOs.