The Migrant Workers’ Union as a ‘Political School’ for Women (Part 1)

Indonesian Migrant Network (JBMI) in the 2018 May Day in Hong Kong. Photo: JBMI
Indonesian Migrant Network (JBMI) in the 2018 May Day in Hong Kong. Photo: JBMI

It was the first time I  heard  ‘Buruh Tani’,[1] an Indonesian movement song sung by a group of women wearing hijabs with the accompaniment of a ‘rebana’[2] drum. It was a unique experience to me, given the song is usually sung by male activists from many movement actions in Indonesia.

I had the privilege of experiencing this in October 2017, when I went to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the first time. Sunday morning at the day, a migrant worker named Tus Mulyani warmly greeted and introduced me to friends in her organization, Oi Merah Putih. I also met Eni Lestari, a migrant workers activist who gave a speech in 2016 in The United Nations Conference, raising the issue of migrant workers.

Every Sunday in Victoria Park, hundreds of domestic migrant workers gather to spend their limited  time to rest. They also use the day to join organization activities, from skills courses, discussions, meetings, receive counselling, to organizing various contests.

Most of the migrant workers in Hong Kong are women who come from many villages in Indonesia, especially  Java Island. Every Sunday when I go to Victoria Park, these women holding all sorts of activities to raise the issues faced by migrants, doing campaigns, case advocacy, criticizing the government’s policy, and inviting other migrants to join the organization.

Victoria Park, in this regard, is a symbol and an arena of organizing the migrants in Hong Kong. Through various activities with political content, the migrant workers receive political education regarding the exploitation they experience. The women also go through a transformation process of their own consciousness by being active in the organization and gain a voice to raise their own interests as migrant workers.

Victoria Park as a learning site created by the efforts of organizing the migrants itself. The union as a place for organized migrants develop a consciousness and dialectically enlarge the space for organizing and enhance the political capacity of women. The union in this regard becomes a ‘Political School’ for female migrant workers.

Tus Mulyani, a migrant workers activist become a master of ceremony for the cultural event organized by the union in Hong Kong (04/03). Photo: Personal documentation.
Tus Mulyani, a migrant workers activist become a master of ceremony for the cultural event organized by the union in Hong Kong (04/03). Photo: Personal documentation.

Living Experiences as Migrant Workers

The migrant workers whom I met in Hong Kong travelled abroad in their early adulthood (roughly 18-25 years old). It is not uncommon to find underage women (below 17 years old) who have already worked as foreign domestic workers—because of forged documents by the recruiting agency. Some of these migrants had to leave their newborn babies, like what Yani and Wati experienced.

The reason why they become migrant workers is mainly due to the economic hardship in their provincial homes. For example, Karsiwen, a returned migrant worker, had no option than working as a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong because she needed money for her brother’s health treatment. “We had to sell some of our assets such as our land. My father was forced to lend some money” said Karsiwen who was only 19 years old when she left for Hong Kong 18 years ago.[3]

Within the context of lagging infrastructure and limited source of information in the regions, added with being recruited when very young, the majority of female migrants found themselves deceived by recruiting agencies. The fraud mode often used by manipulating the process of recruitment. During the recruitment process, the potential migrant workers are asked to sign a contract agreement without being given the chance to learn the content of the contract itself.

The contract is then used by the agent to exploit the migrant by charging them with excessive ‘placement fee’. Without having an understanding about placement fee, almost every migrant worker experience what is called ‘overcharging’. From the IDR 14,780,400 (USD 970) state-regularized placement fee in Hong Kong, the agent charges for more than IDR 24,000,000 (USD 1,570). The migrant workers are then required to pay the placement fee in the form of debt, paid around 2,000 – 3,000 HKD of their salary for about 5-7 months.

Other than that, it is quite common to find the migrants being paid under the minimum wage as what happened to Karsiwen. “I was only paid for 1,800 HKD from the standard of 3,670 HKD at the time.” Ren, another returned migrant workers also experienced being underpaid. “I did not know that I was being underpaid. I knew nothing about my rights,” said Ren.[4]

Not only being exploited by the agent, but migrant workers also face the risk of being abused by their employer. As they are required to live with their employer, these women are forced to work for more than ten hours with bad accommodation and improper food allowance. These poor working conditions are often accompanied by sexual harassment or physical abuse done by the employer, such as Erwiana’s experience.

Migrant workers also face uncertainty by being easily dismissed. As what happened to Wati for example, she was expelled by her employer after asking to take leave to see her only daughter’s graduation. This kind of uncertainty also puts the migrants under extreme precariousity as they could become an ‘overstayer’ with the risk of deportation.


The Union as a Learning Space for Women

Being far away from their homes and families with poor working conditions create a situation for the migrants to have a strong emotional bond among themselves. The union, organization or community turn into a place for the migrants to cope collectively with their living hardships in the foreign country. Within the organization, the women develop a sense and network of solidarity.

One typical process for the female migrants in joining the organization is by handling their own case. Karsiwen for example, became a member of Indonesian Migrant Workers Association (ATKI) in Hong Kong in 2004. Prior to the membership, Karsiwen learned about the organization when she was hearing Eni’s speech about the problem of overcharging in Victoria Park. “I was interested to join because I saw the organization also had the same concern about overcharging like what happened to me.”

With the massive campaign and advocacy on the overcharging cases organized by PILAR-HK, an alliance of migrant union in Hong Kong also contributes to expanding the union membership. Through the overcharging case documentation done by PILAR in 2017, Isma, Iin and Nurilah became interested to join the rank and files. “When we were reporting the 23 overcharging cases in one of the recruiting agency, 55 other migrants complained to us,” said Sailo one of the migrants’ counsellors in PILAR.[5]

The process of introducing the union to the migrant workers is not separate with the consistent efforts in organizing them. In addition to the campaign and advocacy, the migrant workers’ union also open a counselling post for consultation and socialization of migrants’ rights. “I always go around Victoria Park to give some information about the union and our services. Counsellors like me ask the migrants about their problems” added Sailo.

Among the efforts to organize migrant workers, various kinds of events and contests become one of the attractive organizing methods. A karaoke contest, for example, is one of the frequent events in Victoria Park. The contest invites the participants to rearrange a popular song by using lyrics that represent their own living experience as migrant workers.

‘Progressive’ karaoke contest by LIPMI-HK (12/3). Photo: Personal documentation.
‘Progressive’ karaoke contest by LIPMI-HK (12/3). Photo: Personal documentation.

One important thing regarding the organizing migrant workers is the method union applied. The way they recruit and educate migrant workers is through various creative activities, such as karaoke, poetry contest, art exhibitions, skill courses and counselling. The union politically frame these activities by adding information about what is an organization, why it is important and how to join to become a member.

For some people, these activities might sound less ‘heroic’. However, what matters in this regard is the invaluable learning process of the female migrants themselves. Within the activities, the women obtain their own space to express themselves. They are able to express in public by dancing, singing, presenting their talent in fashion, taking lead in meetings and giving political speeches—something is often forbidden in a patriarchal society.

Karsiwen has gone through this learning process. Currently, she is taking the lead in developing a union for migrants and their family in Indonesia, called ‘Kabar Bumi’ (Association of Returned Migrants and Families). “I became more confident as I was trained when I joined the ATKI HK. Before I came to this point, my hands would be shaking when I held a microphone,” said Karsiwen reflecting upon her own experience.

“I learned many things from the unions, from taking English courses, learning laws and state policies, gender study, to the relationship between the fertilizer price and the history of migration.”

The available spaces for these women to learn are crucial in developing their capacity and self-confidence in society. This is especially given the context where these women often come from a patriarchal society with a history of the domestication of women. By becoming active in the union, women are able to slowly deconstruct the idea of domestification—that women are able to express in public, taking the lead, being vocal, and expressing themselves freely.

Women migrant workers train how to speak in public. (10/29). Photo: BTM&B
Women migrant workers train how to speak in public. (10/29). Photo: BTM&B

[1] Buruh Tani, or Workers and the Peasant in English, is a typical Indonesian movement song that tells about how the workers, the peasant and other sectors of working people should be united.
[2] Rebana is a drum-like traditional musical instrument.
[3] Interview with Karsiwen, October 24, 2018.
[4] Interview with Ren, October 24, 2018
[5] Interview with Sailo, August 19, 2018.


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