This Sunday, Hong Kong’s Indonesian community will gather to cast votes for their country’s president, vice-president and legislature. However, not all of the city’s 180,000 Indonesian domestic workers will be able to participate.

The leadership race between incumbent President Joko Widodo and retired military general Prabowo Subianto is tight, and the votes of the archipelago’s two million expatriates can be decisive.

A rally of coalition parties supporting the opposition, presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno, in front of Central Library. Photo: Junko Asano.

For the legislative elections, the overseas bloc is even stronger. Votes abroad make up two million out of a total of 4.4 million votes in the Jakarta Capital Special Region II, which fills seven of the 560 seats in the legislature.

One calculation by Masinton Pasaribu, a legislator from the incumbent nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, estimated that voters abroad could influence up to 10 million votes. “Each migrant worker supports five family members back home, their spouse, their parents and their children. For 2 million migrant workers, you can potentially have 10 million voters in Indonesia.”

Legislator Masington pasaribu explaining to Indonesian citizens how to vote. Photo: Masington Pasaribu, via Instagram.

Dozens of legislative candidates have flown to Hong Kong to campaign amongst the city’s migrant workers over the past six months. But although almost all of the city’s 180,000 Indonesian domestic workers are registered to vote, many are upset that restrictive employment conditions prevent them from exercising their rights.

“It is difficult for many domestic workers to vote because identity documents like passports and HKIDs required at polling stations are often held illegally either by their employer or employment agent,” said Chair of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union Sringatin, who – like many Indonesians – goes by one name.

Indri Sulistyowati, a domestic worker, told HKFP that local bureaucratic procedures may prevent her from voting: “I can’t vote – my passport is being processed by the Immigration Department as I’m renewing my work contract. The Indonesian Consulate tells me to use my Indonesian electronic resident identity card since it has all my biodata. But the problem is that I don’t have one.”

Even those who have the correct documents may still be unable to participate. Sringatin said that some workers may fear for their jobs if they ask for time off: “[N]ot all of them are given time off. Some do not have any day off. Others have to work on Sundays and take their days off on a different day. So how can they go and vote? We have many cases of this…”

In an effort to increase turnout, the Indonesian Consulate sent out official letters on March 18 requesting that employers and employment agencies return identity documents like passports and HKIDs to domestic workers: “We have also asked all domestic workers who encounter such issues to report directly to us so we can help,” Indonesian Consul-General Tri Tharyat told HKFP.

Postal votes

The Indonesian Overseas Election Committee (HK) has also been seeking to improve turnout. The seven-person committee, formed by the Indonesian General Election Commission to carry out elections abroad, has sent out 29,000 postal votes to those unable to vote in person.

Indonesian authorities and representatives from political parties preparing for the elections. Photo: Indonesian Consulate.

But according to Michael Cheng, a domestic worker and Deputy Chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (HK), postal votes are also problematic:

“Many employers don’t give mail to the migrant worker. They see mail and see that it’s not for their family members, so they throw it away. Or sometimes they put it somewhere and forget where they put it. I have a case where the employer even ripped up the domestic worker’s postal vote!”

Cheng added that minor administrative errors can also render postal votes invalid. “We have many members who have received postal votes with two presidential candidate voting papers or two legislative candidate voting papers. Others receive the right postal votes but with the wrong name or address.

A complete postal vote includes presidential and vice-presidential voting papers in one envelope and legislative voting papers in another. Photo: Michael Cheng.

“So then what? How can we vote when we don’t have the right papers? We can send the postal vote back for correction, but domestic workers don’t have the time to mail back and forth during their 16-hour work day.”

But domestic worker Mulyani – who is also local leader of the opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party (HK), said hundreds of their members had not received postal ballots: “Many domestic workers still haven’t received their postal votes despite registering as far back as August 2018… which makes us question whether electoral fraud is taking place behind the scenes.”

The nationalist Indonesian Justice and Unity Party’s campaign for President Joko Widodo and Vice-President Ma’aruf Amin at the Grand Harbour Hotel in Fortress Hill. Photo: Junko Asano.

Chris Suganda Supranto, Chair of the Overseas Election Committee, who run the elections, admits that “around 1700 postal votes have bounced back due to invalid addresses. Often, it’s because the domestic worker has moved since she last registered. Or sometimes she just wrote down the wrong address.”

“We have securely stored these votes upstairs in the Indonesian Consulate and have sent SMS’s out to those whose postal votes have bounced back, inviting them to come by and pick them up. We understand that not everyone can do that, but we just want to give them a chance to do so.”

Legislative candidate Arief Patraman from the nationalist People’s Conscience Party, headed by former military commander Wiranto, dances in a campaign song with the President Jokowi Volunteer group in Victoria Park. Photo: Junko Asano.

“In some cases, the domestic worker is still young and doesn’t really know much about voting. Instead, employers are the ones who call us and make sure that they receive all the right documents for their domestic worker to vote,” Supranto told HKFP, urging employers to help out.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

Junko Asano

Junko Asano is a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford researching Indonesian domestic workers. She has previously written for South China Morning Post on ethnic minority youths.