Stories of Struggle

Value migrant labour, value migrant rights

by ENI LESTARI

Last April I was selected to speak at the United Nations to discuss the content of the sustainable development goals. As a child, I couldn’t dream of even visiting the UN. But nor did I dream that I would become a migrant domestic worker and suffer exploitation and abuse.

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Eni Lestari, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong, was selected to speak at the United Nations second session negotiations on the post-2015 agenda last April 2015.

Instead, I shared the aspirations of most young people – I hoped to complete my education, get a fulfilling job, contribute to my community and live a life of dignity.

Growing up in Indonesia, my dreams were crushed by the Asian financial crisis.

Indonesia was directed to adopt austerity measures. As a result, families like mine lost our livelihoods, were forced into debt and sold off land, left with no access to medical care, no education and no employment opportunities.

I left for Hong Kong to be employed as a domestic worker, knowing little of my rights. I found myself basically a slave: my passport taken away, working 18 hours a day, my wages deducted for high agency fees, underpaid and suffering other maltreatments.

After I left my employer and stayed in the Bethune House Women’s Refuge and met fellow migrant domestic workers, I realised that the abuse I suffered was widespread.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t work legally while fighting the case and I started to organize migrant domestic workers. From local organising, I began engaging at the regional and international level. Now I chair the International Migrants Alliance and am able to support and fight for rights alongside many others.

Once again, it is proven that the strong movement of empowered migrant domestic workers and the strong support of the local community in Hong Kong was the key factor in the fight for justice for my fellow Indonesian, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who endured torture and slavery. Erwiana’s case is not an isolated one. What is rare is that the employer was held to account.

Sharing and learning from my fellow migrants from different parts of the world, I realised that our situation is not an accident of a few bad employers or the country I work in. Our whole economic system is built on cheap exploitable labour, of garment workers in Bangladesh, construction workers in Dubai or domestic workers like me.

Eni Lestari, Chairman of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), demands the Philippine government to rectify its mistakes by going after human traffickers in Mary Jane Veloso's case. (Photo: Coconuts Hong Kong)

Eni Lestari, Chairman of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), demands the Philippine government to rectify its mistakes by going after human traffickers in Mary Jane Veloso’s case. (Photo: Coconuts Hong Kong)

Domestic work itself is often de-humanising and exploitative because it is not regarded as work. We domestic workers take the place of what is considered a woman’s “natural obligation” to provide care in the home – not highly valued and not regarded as skilled.

Our economies rely on women’s care labour at home to support labour in the fields, factories and offices. How could an economy function if someone wasn’t looking after children or the elderly, wasn’t cooking, cleaning and caring?

When I spoke at the UN, I told governments that sustainable development can only be delivered if we dismantle the global economic system that kills local economies and replaces our small enterprises with multinationals, that forces governments to privatise the services that we are entitled to as human beings like health and education and water and energy, that reduces labour rights and trade union rights and that force women to migrate as cheap, exploitable labour.

It’s clear that a tiny minority of people are benefiting from a system where we produce and consume too much. We need to value all labour – paid and unpaid – redistribute both paid and unpaid work, reduce hours of work and make economies work for people, rather than the other way around.

Governments have come up with proposed goals and targets to achieve sustainable development. One target specifically deals with unpaid care work:

“Recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through […] public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate.”

The International Migrants Alliance (IMA) had its 2nd General Assembly in Manila parallel to the International Festival for Peoples Rights and Struggles 2011. IMA's 3rd General Assembly is set on Nov 12-13 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Grabbed from Instagram)

The International Migrants Alliance (IMA) had its 2nd General Assembly in Manila parallel to the International Festival for Peoples Rights and Struggles 2011. IMA’s 3rd General Assembly is set on Nov 12-13 in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Grabbed from Instagram)

The target could be a good start if it didn’t have the “as nationally appropriate” clause to let governments who don’t like it off the hook. There’s also an important target for migrant workers:

“Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment”

Yet there is nothing there to make governments recognize domestic work as work and there’s nothing to ensure workers start getting a fair wage. As governments now start talking about indicators for sustainable development goals we’re calling on them to set indicators that make these targets mean something. An indicator that measures living wages would be a great start.

Another indicator is the need to ensure domestic workers are included in national labour codes.

Governments from countries with large numbers of migrant workers, like Indonesia and Bangladesh, speak highly of the rights of migrant workers in international negotiations. But they are not vocal about valuing women’s domestic labour. Bangladesh, for example, expressly called for the target on unpaid care work to be removed.

Likewise, Indonesia’s government refuses to pass the proposed bill on domestic workers and rejects the demand to remove the monopoly of private recruitment agencies in the national law for migrant workers.

Very few governments see the link between these two targets. Instead, many see migrants’ remittances as a form of development finance.

This has to be one of the most obscene examples of states outsourcing their obligations to deliver on the right to development.

And the biggest contradiction of all in these negotiations is that countries that promote gender equality, such as the US, the EU and Australia, are the countries that promote policies that impoverish countries, cut services and promote cheap labour – all of which violate women’s rights.

I ended my speech at the UN by saying “I hope that by coming here and speaking to you directly you can honour not just my request but the demands of millions of women like me.

“Please be ambitious, be brave, be honourable and be just. Please incorporate development justice into this declaration – if not, please tell me where I should go to achieve it.”

These development goals may be the last chance governments and the UN has to show us that international consensus and agreements can work. If they fail we, the people, will have no choice than to look for solutions that don’t involve governments.


Eni Lestari is an Indonesian domestic helper and migrant rights activist who has been working in Hong Kong since 1999. She is the current chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA). 

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