Tuesday, October 3, 2017

[Friday Seminar Recap] From a Victim of Exploitation to an Advocate of Migrant’s Rights: A Journey and Lesson Learnt

Date: September 22th 2017 (Friday)
Speaker: Eni Lestari (International Migrants Alliance)

Ms. Eni Lestari

Eni Lestari is an Indonesian domestic worker and migrant rights activist who has been working in Hong Kong since 1999. In the Friday Seminar titled “From a Victim of Exploitation to an Advocate of Migrant’s Rights: A Journey and Lesson Learnt”, Ms. Lestari examined the troubled reality faced by migrant workers and discussed how bottom-up empowerment of migrant workers can be possible by telling her own story.

Ms. Lestari started by explaining how she ended up in Hong Kong: Being a daughter of a poor family in East Java, Indonesia, her dream of going to university was crushed by the Asian financial crisis (1996-1998), which left her family in debt. The only hope she saw was to become a migrant worker, and it took her more than one year to convince her parents to let her go. “I will go to Hong Kong—at least, I heard, they have holidays there, and I can call you to let you know I am alright,” said the young Ms. Lestari to her worried parents.     

Yet, Ms. Lestari did not expect that she would be confined in an “agency training camp”, which to her was almost like a prison. She told the audience how workers recruited by brokers had to live in a shabby room without access to information, decent food, proper accommodation or good hygiene. After five months, Ms. Lestari flew to Hong Kong, only to fall into another “trap”—her identity documents got confiscated right upon arrival; she was underpaid and denied rest days by her employer. Regardless of Ms. Lestari’s religious belief, the employer tried to force her to eat pork. In the cold winter that Ms. Lestari had never experienced before, she was only provided with two short sleeve T-shirts. And there were a lot of prohibitions: she was not allowed to use the phone, to use the washing machine, to pray, to weep in the night, to go out of the house or to talk to other people. Ms. Lestari ran away after 7 months.

“It took me so long to even get to know what it means and to realize that it was illegal for the employer to treat me like this,” Ms. Lestari recollected. She understood her experience not as an individual misfortune, but a social problem. Indonesia, the 4th largest nation in the world, is rich in natural resources, yet, landlessness, a high unemployment rate, poverty, economic inequality, poor social services, corruption and militarization characterize the harsh reality Indonesians find themselves in. Ms. Lestari explained how the labor export program is a big industry aiming to minimize social problems caused by massive poverty by exporting labor and earning revenues from remittances and fees. As the labor export business is outsourced to private recruitment agencies, direct government protection and accountability becomes unavailable to individual migrant workers, Ms. Lestari pointed out.

Ms. Lestari then turned to her “empowerment journey”: After running away from the abusive employer, she was sheltered in Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, where she was trained to learn English, knowledge about migrant workers’ rights and organizational skills, and assisted in handling cases of fellow migrant workers. Ms. Lestari discussed the challenges in organizing: the migrant workers are afraid of losing their jobs and prosecution and many feel that their condition is a given and cannot be improved anyway. “No ordinary people in our society hold a mic, so even just to make the domestic workers speak in public is a big empowerment,” commented Ms. Lestari. The activists also have a hard time dealing with intimidation from agencies, lack of support and even reactive response from fellow migrant workers as they engage in educating, organizing and mobilizing the grassroots.

The International Migrants Alliance, of which Ms. Lestari is currently the chairperson, was established in 2008 in Hong Kong and aimed to bring the voices of grassroots migrants, refugees and displaced people into regional and global policy-making. “Our presence is seen as ‘temporary’ and is made invisible,” said Ms. Lestari, “And our voices unheard. When we are called upon to talk, we are only expected to provide testimony about our suffering. We are never asked, ‘what do you want’ or ‘what is your wish’, as if we were people with no brains and no feelings. This is why we have to take the initiative and speak for ourselves.” 

Ms. Lestari wrapped up by trying to debunk the myth of “migration for development”, analyzing how the global capitalist system in the day of neoliberalism has led to displacement, impoverishment and suffering of people.

During the talk, Ms. Lestari effectively combined her personal story with structural analysis, and impressed the audience with vivid stories, a good sense of humor, and her determination to fight for the rights and welfare of migrants.

The Audience

922日的「星期五研討會」中,國際移工聯盟(International Migrants Alliance)現任主席Eni Lestari女士分享了她從剝削的受害者到社會運動家的轉變歷程。她分析了其中折射出的移工面臨的艱難處境,並探討由下而上的賦權如何可能。 Lestari女士來自於印度尼西亞的一個貧困家庭。亞洲金融風暴使他們陷入債務之中,也碾碎了她的大學夢。外出務工似乎成為了唯一希望。Lestari用了一年多的時間說服父母,「我要去香港……至少,我聽說,他們有假期,我可以打電話給你們報平安。」



逃離虐待她的雇主之後,Lestari去到白恩逢女移民工庇護中心(Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge)。在那裡,她學習了英文、與移工權利相關的知識以及進行組織工作的技巧。Lestari表示,要動員移工參與運動,同樣困難重重:他們往往害怕失去工作、遭到迫害,也常常覺得他們的處境無法改變。

國際移工聯盟(International Migrants Alliance)成立於2008年,致力於將基層移工、難民和流離失所人民的聲音帶進地區與全球性的政策制定過程之中。「我們的存在總被視為是『臨時』的,不被真正看見。當我們被召去講話的時候,人們都只是期待我們以受害者的角色,訴說我們遭受過的苦難。然而,從來沒有人問過我們,『你想要什麼?你的願望是什麼?』似乎我們是沒有大腦、沒有感情的人。因此,我們必須為自己發聲。


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