Migrant workers are treated as second class citizens, but now women are organising and speaking out

On a dark, damp Sunday, hundreds of women are massed in a city park. “Women united will never be divided! Migrants united will never be divided!” chant women in hijab, dipping and turning alongside others in hot pants.

“With this kind of solidarity, people can be heard,” said Eni Lestari, chair of the International Migrant Workers Alliance. “More and more people are speaking out. But in terms of conditions, it’s not getting better.” The numbers of foreign domestic helpers, overwhelmingly female, have soared across the Asia-Pacific region. In 1992, Hong Kong had slightly more than 100,000; now there are three times as many. Malaysia has 1,25,000; in Thailand, 88,000 were registered in 2010. But the true numbers are thought to be far higher for all three. The Filipino and Indonesian diaspora have been joined by Myanmarese, Nepalese and Cambodians.

Limited rights

Reports of exploitation are rife; rights are limited. While Singapore recently introduced a statutory weekly day off, campaigners say it is not being adequately enforced and employers can legally avoid granting it by increasing pay. Migrants in Taiwan have been fighting for the same right, without success.

Ms Lestari, from Indonesia, knows from experience how vulnerable workers can be. She said her first employers did not give her a single day off in four months; paid her only half her promised wages; insisted she eat pork despite her being Muslim; and banned her from talking to people outside the house.

“I ran away and an NGO helped me to find shelter,” she said. First she learned about her rights; then she shared her new knowledge with others.

Domestic workers’ organisations, and the new HK Helpers campaign supporting them, are seeking to end abuses by agencies who charge fees of as much as HKD$21,000 (£1,620) and confiscate workers’ documents. The legal maximum is around HKD$400.

They also want maximum working hours legislation and an end to the “two-week rule” — giving workers just a fortnight to leave when their employment ends — and the insistence they live with their employer.

But even when workers speak out, officials in home and host countries turn a blind eye, said Ms Norma Kang Muico for Amnesty International. “Authorities disregard them because they are not voters and have no right to abode.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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