By Ralf Ruckusu
April 13th, 2020
On March 1, 2020, the migrant domestic worker and citizen journalist Yuli Riswati talked to Ralf Ruckus and Alina Kornfeldt about the (Indonesian) migrant domestic workers’ visible and invisible involvement in the Hong Kong opposition movement. Economic and social life in Hong Kong would not function without migrant domestic workers. Their labor also sustained the persistence of Hong Kong’s opposition movement, but their concerns hardly play any role in its demands for more democracy.
In other places, having a domestic worker is a status symbol, but in Hong Kong, employing a domestic worker is rather a necessity than a luxury. One in eight families, and one in three families with children employ a domestic worker to take care of children, the elderly, and everyday household needs. Most households rely on a double income in order to cover their living costs, since Hong Kong is the place of the most expensive rent worldwide. Hong Kong employees have excessively long working days, but there is a lack of (affordable) care facilities for children and the elderly. For working class families, employing a migrant domestic worker is the most economic solution to their care needs: Their monthly salary is less than the monthly rent of a parking lot, or the amount of money some people spend on feeding and grooming their dogs. Migrant domestic workers work for market sellers, office employees, city cleaning workers, or teachers. The migrant domestic workers make sure they can go to work with washed and neat clothes, that their house will be safe, that their children will be taken care of, and that they don’t have to worry about their elderly parents. Indirectly, they keep the economic and social life in Hong Kong moving.
This critical role of migrant domestic workers is underpinned by immigration regulations and labor policies. In the 1970s, the Hong Kong government introduced a visa scheme for migrant domestic workers, which is the legal framework for their exploitative conditions. It stipulates that migrant domestic workers live with their employers; their fixed monthly salary is exempted from the statutory minimum wage. They are entitled to one rest day per week, but otherwise, their working hours are not regulated. Their visa depends on a contract with an employer. If a domestic worker or her employer terminates the contract, the worker has to find a new employer within two weeks, or else she faces deportation. Nowadays, the 150,000 domestic workers from Indonesia form the second largest group of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, following the community of Filipina workers. Like the Filipina workers, Indonesian domestic workers organize themselves, they hold demonstrations and protests and make demands to the Hong Kong and the Indonesian government. The Indonesian government, however, discourages migrant domestic workers from political involvement. Indonesia depends on the remittances sent by Indonesians working abroad; they have become the second largest source of foreign income after the export of crude oil and gas.
In June 2019, demonstrations in Hong Kong against the draft of a bill on the extradition of alleged criminals to foreign countries including the People’s Republic of China triggered protests that have been supported by large parts of the Hong Kong society. Yuli Riswati observed and covered the protests between June and October 2019. She started to become involved as a journalist, and she wrote fictional short stories. She had already worked in Hong Kong for more than 10 years and had joined migrant domestic workers’ organizations. Since 2017, she had offered counseling to her fellow migrant domestic workers via social media. In spring 2019, she had launched the website Migran Pos, a citizen journalism media she manages in collaboration with a number of fellow migrant domestic workers. Migran Pos publishes information which the team finds necessary for their community to know. In the course of the Hong Kong opposition movement, Indonesian domestic workers have relied on Migran Pos as a trusted source of information about the protests, since fake news that circulated in the course of the protests and targeted migrant domestic workers were confusing many of them. Indonesian government representatives in Hong Kong appealed to migrant domestic workers to stay away from the demonstrations and refrain from talking about anything related to the movement.
In December 2019, Yuli was deported by Hong Kong immigration authorities. She had been arrested in September, officially because she was accused of overstaying her visa. After she had signed a two-year employment contract some months before, she had renewed her passport but not her visa. Usually in such cases, immigration officers renew migrant domestic workers’ visa without a hassle as long as workers have an employment contract. Yuli had such a contract but was still held in detention for 28 days in November, where she faced humiliating conditions. She was repatriated to Indonesia in early December. She attributes her deportation to political reasons and her participation in the movement as a citizen journalist. After her deportation, Hong Kong-based groups organized a rally against her deportation to show their solidarity and address the situation of inmates of the detention center in Hong Kong.
Invisible forms of support
RR/AK: How have migrant domestic workers been involved in the protests?
YR: Migrant domestic workers who have an understanding about democracy support the Hong Kong protests, but they don’t openly participate in the movement because the risks would be too high for them. They fear that participating in the movement would lead to discrimination, deportations, and to bans on working in Hong Kong. The majority of migrant domestic workers don’t have any deeper knowledge of politics or an understanding of what is happening in Hong Kong.
I talked to workers who contribute to the movement on their workdays and ensure the well-being of their employers who join the protests: by preparing food to bring to the demonstrations, by preparing equipment like umbrellas used as protection against photos and rubber bullets. They remind their employers and family members to bring masks or prepare spare clothes to bring to the actions. For example, once at the market, I met a migrant domestic worker who was carrying five or six umbrellas. I asked her: “You went out to buy umbrellas? Why so many?” She said: “Yes, I bought them for my employer. We have run out of umbrellas in the house” – “Really, how could they run out of umbrellas?” – “They take them to the rallies. I am preparing these umbrellas for them, my employer and his children.” – “All of them are joining the demonstrations?” – “Yes, my male employer, his daughter, and her two children, all of them go onto the streets. And each of them brings an umbrella. So I bought these for them.” She added: “The shopkeeper also asked me why I was buying so many umbrellas. He is an elderly man and pro-government. I said I want to send them to my home country because umbrellas in Hong Kong are of good quality.”
A small proportion of the workers are directly involved in the actions – in their role of performing their tasks as domestic workers. One domestic worker told me about her 70-year-old employer who wanted to support the young people on the streets. However, she had no one to go with because her husband was ill and had to walk on crutches. She talked to their maid: “I would like to take part in the actions, but I can’t go there with my husband, because he is not mobile. Joining my son is not an option either because he will be at the front line of the protests. He will have to run when the protesters clash with the police.” The maid said: “If you need someone to accompany you, I can accompany you.” – “But then you cannot take your day off.” – “I don’t mind accompanying you, what matters is that you are happy. You are good to me.” So the domestic worker accompanied her female employer almost every time she joined the actions. She sacrificed her day off, but her female employer was also good to her. Of course she was compensated for working on her day off. There was a mutual understanding between the two. The domestic worker carried food and drinks for her elderly employer who couldn’t carry big bags any more. She made sure her employer would reach the demonstration and home safely. They had to walk long distances. When her employer was exhausted, the domestic worker asked her to take a rest or have something to eat. The two of them were like a tandem. I asked this domestic worker: “Do you actually intend to help the movement?” – “Well no. What matters to me is to help my employer. I know that she is fighting for many things, so I want to help her.”
Apart from supporting the movement through ensuring their employers’ physical well-being, they also give them mental support. They, for instance, comfort their employers when they are fighting with their children who participated in the demonstrations. I talked to workers whose employers kicked out their children. These employers said to their children: “If you get in trouble, don’t drag us into it,” or: “You are not my son anymore.” These young people did not come home for a couple of months and did not tell their parents where they were staying, but made sure their parents were well via the domestic workers. The domestic workers took up a role of a tacit communication bridge. When these adolescents chose to leave their parental homes, they actually did not have the heart to do so. They contacted the domestic worker when they wanted to ask about their parents’ well-being, but did not want to call them: “How is Mum, does she take her medicine regularly? You have to take good care of her.” The domestic worker became emotionally involved. Her support allowed the demonstrators to focus on the protests and not worry about their families at home. Their concentration was not disturbed because the migrant domestic workers assured that their parents at home were doing well.
The employers also used their domestic workers as messengers to communicate with their children. In one case, the conflict between a mother and her sons was so ugly that they didn’t even greet each other. But sometimes, this employer would buy her sons’ favorite food and send it to them via the domestic worker: “Give this to gogo [elder brother] and sailou [younger brother]. I’m sure they don’t get this where they are.” Then, the domestic worker would contact her employers’ sons and ask: “Where are you? I will bring you soup.”
“Neither the government of Hong Kong, the government of Indonesia, nor Hong Kong people feel that we have our own political views”
Do you feel migrant domestic workers’ contributions to the movement are appreciated appropriately?
Despite our contributions, we experience unequal treatment because we do not have adequate access to information and protection. In the beginning, neither the government nor Hongkongers themselves thought that we were part of them and that we needed to be informed about what is happening to understand the situation. In fact, without necessarily being aware of it, migrant domestic workers have been involved in the happenings around the movement. It may just happen that when the domestic workers are out, they get hurt by rubber bullets or are exposed to tear gas. But our work contracts stipulate that our health insurances do not cover the treatment of injuries which we suffer on our days off. So, if we want to use our right to spend our day off outside, this implies a high risk. Who protects our safety? If we are not protected, this means we are deprived of our right to enjoy our day off once a week, whether we are directly involved in the movement or not.
Neither the government of Hong Kong, the government of Indonesia, nor Hong Kong people feel that we have our own political views. Therefore, they do not include us. Why are we always treated as children and dictated how to behave and which attitudes we should cultivate? If we had more access to information, we could develop our own attitude towards the movement. How we think about the movement should be our decision as grown up humans. We are supposed to do only this certain task, to follow other people’s opinions and estimations. We are not supposed to speak for ourselves nor decide for ourselves which position we want to take up. They really discriminate against us in this respect. ‘They’ are the Hong Kong government, the locals, the Indonesian government, and even a great portion of our own community. They are discriminatory to themselves: they say that we are only women and should only do our job as domestic workers, that we should only obey the instructions of our employers, and that we should only listen to the appeals of the government. And when one friend among them has the courage to have a different opinion, they bully her and think she causes harm to the community. They think she is not part of them: “You have to have the same opinion as us, don’t do anything different that could do harm to us.”
My personal opinion is that everyone should be aware that the migrant workers are equal to everyone else in Hong Kong. Irrespective of their status, the domestic workers are humans like everybody else. They are grown-ups who make choices and who are capable to form their own views on the movement. But so far, we have been restrained in taking action and raising our voice – as if we were different than, whatever you want to call them, the locals, or Hongkongers. To me, the question is: Who should be called a Hongkonger? We may be involved in many ways, voluntarily or by exploitation, because of our job, or by personal choice. But in the end, whether you call us Hongkongers nor not – we are part of Hong Kong.
When you collected information and took photos during the demonstrations, which reactions from protesters did you encounter?
Sometimes I was met with suspicion because my appearance stands out: I wear a hijab and my clothes are of a different color than those people who participated in the protest. Once I was taking pictures among a bunch of journalists. Someone suddenly approached me and asked: “Are you a journalist?” I showed them a press card, which we had made at Migran Pos. That was enough for him to say: “Okay. If you are a journalist, I won’t disturb you.” On another occasion, when I was taking photos, some women said: “Hey, you can’t randomly take photos.” Suddenly they insulted me. I explained: “I know, I don’t take any pictures that show faces and I am aware of what I can take a picture of and what not.” I showed them my camera. I experienced these moments of suspicion because I look different than them. I had the feeling that there is a bias, that they feel I was not part of them, and that they felt disturbed because someone who was different from them was participating in the middle of the protests.
I faced rejection not only from the protesters of the opposition movement, but also from people who support the government. Once, when I was collecting information on the protests in Admiralty, a business district in Hong Kong, an elderly lady came over to me: “Why are you taking photos of the police? They are doing their work.” She hit me. I said to her: “You are not allowed to hit me.” Many people came to protect me: “You may not hit her. If you hit her, you could be reported to the police.” – “She is a maid, what is she doing here?”
Not everybody in the movement rejected us, however. Most of the protesters weren’t bothered by our presence. The younger protesters were more welcoming. Some really cared about us. Once I was sitting among the protesters in a shopping mall and the police came. All of a sudden someone opened an umbrella above my head. I turned over, he said: “You have to use an umbrella because the police are upstairs. They are filming us. I don’t want them to film you. You better put on your mask.” Also, once I was reporting about a protest in Sham Shui Po. In the metro station, I was taking pictures of food and spare clothes which supporters had left for the protesters on the ticket machine. Suddenly, the protesters came running. Some of them stopped and said to me: “Jeje [elder sister, form of address used for domestic workers], you should leave this place, it is dangerous here. Come with us, we take the metro.” I was moved by those protesters who cared to protect us in situations when they themselves were in danger. On another occasion, I witnessed how a domestic worker was trapped in the protest area. She was crying of fear. One of the young protesters asked her: “What are you doing?” – “I want to go home. My employer’s home is over there, but I am scared.” This young guy took off his helmet, put it on the domestic worker, and his friend shielded her with an umbrella. The two of them accompanied her to pass the crowded area. I was speechless when I observed this scene, I couldn’t even take any photos because I was so moved. They care about us who need to be protected and who suffer harm from the situation although we are not involved. Some protesters would say to the domestic workers: “Sorry, jeje, we have to pass here. Sorry to disturb you.”
“If you want your movement to be successful, don’t disregard that migrant domestic workers contribute to the persistence of the movement”
From your perspective as migrant domestic worker, which demands should be added to the five demands of the movement?
First, the protesters demanded to revoke the extradition bill draft, which the government withdrew already. Second, they demanded the retraction of characterizing the protesters as rioters. Third, they demanded to release and exonerate arrested protesters. Fourth, they rejected the police violence and demanded the establishment of an independent commission to inquire into police behavior. And fifth, they demanded universal suffrage. In fact, migrant domestic workers are not represented in these demands. But actually, the extradition bill also affects us because it would have applied to everyone who is in Hong Kong. The demand for suffrage automatically doesn’t apply to us because we are not citizens. I don’t know whether I have the right to say this, but if something should be added to the demands, this would be a demand for the rights of migrant domestic workers and other ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, such as stopping discrimination and providing equal access to information. Because there is an asymmetry between Hong Kong citizens and the ethnic minorities and migrant domestic workers. Discrimination and everyday racism are a fact of our lives in Hong Kong. Yet, fulfilling the demand for equality does not solely rest with the government. This is also the responsibility of Hong Kong citizens. We support their movement because we feel part of them, although not all of their demands affect us. We feel solidarity because we know that if Hongkongers lose their freedom of expressions, we will also lose it.
In my opinion, regardless of its aims, the movement would gain strength if it addressed the question of exclusion. The slogan ‘we connect’ raised the question of relations to ethnic minorities. This slogan appeared in October 2019 because the ongoing conflicts also affected ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Rumors made members of South East Asian communities the scapegoats for an attack against a pro-democracy activist. Also, the communities of ethnic minorities were affected by police violence when the police sprayed the biggest mosque in Hong Kong with a water cannon filled with stinging blued dye. In my opinion, the movement should build up a common movement that includes ethnic minorities and migrant domestic workers from the grassroots. This would overcome the gap between the demand for justice and the discrimination of non-citizens and ignorance towards people who are actually living among those who are going onto the streets. If you want your movement to be successful, don’t disregard that migrant domestic workers contribute to the persistence of the movement: We make sure of everything at your homes, make sure that your families are well. Don’t forget that we could just say that this is not part of our duties – our duties are doing household chores, and not establishing emotional bonds with you. But you need more from the migrant domestic workers. This is why Hongkongers should involve us and other ethnic minorities. They should stop thinking it’s them who know best about Hong Kong.
Connections between movements in Hong Kong and Indonesia
Last year in September and October, Indonesia saw the largest protests in decades, in reaction to legislative proposals that would curb the powers of Indonesia’s anti-corruption body and freedom of expression, limit personal freedoms and harm the environment. How did these protests relate to the Hong Kong protests?
The massive anti-extradition law movement in Hong Kong has inspired recent protests in Indonesia. Since the 1998 protests and the fall of the Suharto regime, no massive protests have occurred in Indonesia. It seemed that Indonesians felt comfortable with the reformasi period – this is how we call the transition era that followed the resignation of the authoritarian president Suharto who had ruled the country for 32 years. Actually, there are many things Indonesians have been dissatisfied with. They had been waiting to explode and raise their voice. What happened in Hong Kong inspired Indonesians and gave them motivation: “In Hong Kong, the young people have already gone to the streets.” But also the movement in Hong Kong was inspired by previous movements in Indonesia. They found that Suharto and Carrie Lam had something in common, since both leaders refused to step down and were ready to do anything to retain power. When on July 1, protesters in Hong Kong stormed the Legislative Council Complex for the first time in history, some tweeted that they had been inspired by the Indonesian 1998 movement which had occupied the National Parliament building in Jakarta. The protesters in Hong Kong hoped they could topple Carrie Lam as well. In the Apple Daily, there once was a headline that showed a picture of Suharto at the time he was overthrown.
The protesters adopted throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tires. Both movements inspired each other in their tactics. They share the feeling of fighting against tyranny, of demanding democracy. When in September 2019, people in Jakarta protested against the government, a hashtag ‘reformasi dikorupsi’ (reformasi has been corrupted) appeared in Hong Kong. I once took a photo of a graffiti saying ‘reformasi dikorupsi’. I am sure Hongkongers who don’t speak Indonesian, and not Indonesians, made this graffiti because it contained typos and some text was crossed out. Also, I once overheard a discussion between the demonstrators: “It’s a pity what is happening in Indonesia.” So they felt a connection to what was happening in Indonesia, although they were also facing repression. “In Indonesia, some people were shot. They died.” They cared for Indonesians, and Indonesians cared for Hongkongers, because they are both faced with arbitrary governments and police violence. There is an emotional bond between both movements, although they do not directly relate to each other. While in Indonesia, there is no explicit solidarity movement with Hongkongers, I observed messages of solidarity with Indonesia in Hong Kong. Graffiti, for instance, read: “Stay with Indonesia.” Once I met a protester who said he felt sympathy for Indonesians: “Because of their government.” – “How do you know about Indonesia?” – “I read everything, jeje. I learn about Indonesian history. Now that we can search all information on the internet, I read about Suharto’s fall.” – “Ah. Sorry, it’s because I didn’t learn about this,” I said. I asked him: “Since I am Indonesian, may I know why you support Indonesia?” – “I feel pity for Indonesia.” So they feel that Indonesians are fighting a struggle that is similar to the struggle of people in Hong Kong.
Actually, I ask myself: Why does Hong Kong show open solidarity with Indonesia, but in Indonesia there is no open solidarity with Hong Kong. I think it has to do with the global influence and pressure of China. Even those organizations which consider themselves proactive and progressive are suddenly silent because they are afraid of the strength of China. The Indonesian government also has its own approach to the Chinese government. They suck up to the Chinese government. For instance, when other countries tried to stop and minimalize the number of incoming travelers from Wuhan and China in order to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, the Indonesian government declared that they are still welcome, and that there will be no restrictions of Mainland Chinese coming to Indonesia.
Support for migrant domestic workers
When you were deported after having reported about the protests in Hong Kong, some activists in Hong Kong organized a solidarity action. Who supported you?
Thinking of this support still makes me speechless. I was surprised about the solidarity action. When I was back in Indonesia, friends who had supported me during my case, contacted me: “We would like to organize a solidarity action, Justice for Yuli. Do you agree?” I said: “I don’t know. It’s no problem, I guess.” Among the supporters were local and internationalist journalists, some local individuals, there were some refugees, and people engaging in the field of migrant workers, such as members of collectives, or the members of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions. Some supporters were from Lensational, an organization where I had been active as a student and tutor and which supports female workers in places like Hong Kong, India, and Pakistan by teaching photography. Some of the supporters who joined the action really surprised me. A friend of mine sent a video of a 12-year-old kid who had joined the action. He was wearing a mask, covering his face. “Why are you coming to this solidarity action?” – “I want to support Yuli because I also have a jeje at home. I know, the jejes are very good to us.” – “And why are you wearing a mask?” – “Because I don’t want my parents to know. They don’t support the demonstrations.”
In what way was the Justice for Yuli action different from earlier solidarity actions with migrant domestic workers, for instance the solidarity actions with Erwiana, a domestic worker who was tortured by her employer and whose case triggered public discussions about the migrant workers’ situation in Hong Kong in 2015?
The solidarity movement with Erwiana focused on her individual case. The solidarity action Justice for Yuli questioned migrant domestic workers’ exclusion from the identity of being a Hongkonger. The supporters came up with the idea that the designation ‘foreign domestic worker’, which is common in Hong Kong, should be changed into ‘migrant domestic worker.’ They questioned the designation of migrant domestic workers as foreigners: “Isn’t it too unfair to consider them as foreigners while they are actually part of us?” The action stimulated discussions among supporters: How should we treat the domestic workers in the future? It also raised broader questions about the situation of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. As a result of the action, the solidarity movement in Hong Kong started to engage in advocating the rights of refugees and of detainees in the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) where deportees are held prior to deportation. A group of supporters called CIC Detention Rights Concern Group engage for the rights and protection of refugees and the detainees at the detention center. They support some detainees in making claims to the government that are related to their illegal detention. My case revealed a lot of mistreatment at the detention center, and more ex-detainees reported their experiences. The supporters are discussing how the detainees’ and former detainees’ rights and access to justice can be secured.
Other contributions by Yuli Riswati
Anthology “Afterwork Readings” (KUNCI & Parasite 2016), which contains one of Yuli Riswati’s short stories.
Yuli’s speech at the international women’s day demonstration in Berlin on March 8, 2020
Yuli’s contribution to the exhibition “Afterbefore. Images and sound from Hong Kong. An exhibition of photography, video, sound art, and the written word” at The Gallery at Chinatown Soup, New York, January 29 to February 9, 2020.
Ralf Ruckus has been active in social movements in Europe and Asia for decades and publishes texts on social struggles in China and elsewhere. He edits gongchao.org and blogs on naoqingchu.org.