Our Own Army: Bethune House, ATKI, and Hong Kong's Migrant Worker Movement
Translation by Jeffrey Yeung & Jaspar Chan.
Building a strong labour movement can be especially difficult for migrant workers. Not only are roving migrant workers unable to settle for long periods at their host countries, they may also lack the necessary awareness and connections needed to secure their rights. As such, many silently endure through exploitative work contracts. Still, despite their status as second-class citizens, Hong Kong’s community of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) has engaged in a considerable degree of grassroots organizing, articulating a politics that is more progressive than that of many local labour movements. While I cannot give a complete picture of the degree to which migrant workers are politicized and organized, and elaborate on the lessons their organizing experiences hold for local workers, I can confidently say that Bethune House has played a significant role in building and sustaining the migrant workers’ movement.
In another article, we made a brief introduction of this little-known shelter, which was set up by Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW). It provides emergency services for FDWs in its shelter, a temporary refuge for those who have left, and are perhaps suing, their exploitative employers. In this article, we want to bring to light the little known fact that Bethune House has made tremendous contributions to the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. We interviewed an Indonesian migrant worker and activist-organiser, Eni Lestari, whose life has been deeply impacted by her time at Bethune. She is the chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance (IMA), and has been invited to speak on behalf of immigrants at UN Summits. In 2000, she, along with other Indonesian migrant workers, established the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Associasi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, ATKI, later renamed to Associasi Buruh Migran Indonesia). It was one of the first organisations to be established by the Indonesian migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong, with its membership exceeding two hundred today.
Hailing from a small village in eastern Java, Eni’s parents worked as small-time retailers prior to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which ruined the Indonesian economy and left their family heavily in debt. As a result, Eni couldn’t continue her studies after high school. And so she set out to find work instead, trying her hand at various jobs, from making hair for Barbie dolls at home and selling food to working as a cleaner in the city. But she remained underemployed. Her income remained consistently low - for instance, her job as a cleaner only brought in 200-300 HKD a month. In 1998, Eni resolved to go abroad in search of better work opportunities, a course of action to which her parents initially opposed. But in time they came to accept Eni’s decision on the condition that she avoided working in the Middle East, which they deemed dangerous. She ultimately opted to work in Hong Kong, on the basis that there would be one legally mandated rest day a week, a guarantee which Singapore lacked.
Eni’s agency initially barred her from working in Hong Kong, claiming that such jobs were reserved for those with the appropriate work experience. She fought hard for the right to be sent to Hong Kong, emphasizing to the agency her proficiency in English. After clearing the agency’s examinations, she was finally allowed to work in Hong Kong. She had planned to stay in Hong Kong for four years and to dedicate her wages for the first two years to repay her debt to the agency and the latter two years for her siblings’ education. Life took a different turn, however, when she arrived in 1999.
Eni’s first employer flat-out denied her food, the weekly rest day, and paid her a monthly wage of 1,800 HKD, which was less than half the legal minimum allowable wage. She was unaware that these practices were illegal, and it was not until her fifth month in Hong Kong that her friends would discover the extent of her plight. After contacting MFMW, she learned her rights, and on the advice of MFMW, she gathered evidence of her exploitation so that her case could be investigated by the Labour Department. She then fled her employer’s home and took refuge at Bethune.
On the road to activism
Eni’s stay at Bethune House would only last five months - a deceptively short period of time which belies the profound impact the brief stay would have on her. Due to her proficiency in English, Eni was tasked as a translator, facilitating communication between local volunteers and Indonesian FDWs at Bethune, as well as taking part in organizing classes aimed at educating FDWs about their rights in Hong Kong. Over time, Eni would become familiar with Hong Kong’s FDW employment system and human rights issues, travelling around Hong Kong and participating regularly in workers’ advocacy events. Most importantly, Eni was deeply impressed by Bethune’s philosophy of effecting change from the bottom-up through the self-organization of the oppressed. She thought that if the problems of the migrant workers were to be solved, there would be no one better positioned to do so than themselves.
When we asked Eni how Bethune imparted this belief onto her, she replied, “when Bethune offers aid to those in need, they do not ask to be compensated monetarily or through volunteer work. I was quite surprised, since I have never encountered people with this sort of mentality. The workers running Bethune don’t view themselves as experts dealing with cases. They constantly encourage us to believe in ourselves to achieve meaningful changes - so yeah, it was really my own efforts that eventually resolved my dispute with my former employer!” After a laugh, Eni continued, “Other NGOs are organized hierarchically; they treat us like clients and only offer us legal advice. At Bethune, even if you make mistakes, they would smile, and then find ways to work together with you to solve your problems. Because I felt accepted and eventually came to believe in their principles, I began to try to educate others.”
At the time, not many Indonesian FDWs were aware of the rights they had in Hong Kong, said Eni. She and her friends would go to Victoria Park on Sundays to disseminate among the FDWs the knowledge they had acquired, and promote Bethune’s query hotline for workers to turn to should they run into any problems. Itching to do more for the migrant workers in the city, she established ATKI in October 2000, with an initial membership of twenty-five, half of whom were FDWs who had previously stayed at Bethune. Needless to say, they did not view themselves as passive victims in need of aid, but rather as proactive organisers.
Aid from Bethune House
Building a labor organization from the ground up will always be difficult, especially for one organised by migrant workers, who will invariably face problems that locals don’t have to deal with. At first, ATKI-organized activities in Causeway Bay were lively, with cultural celebrations taking place alongside the awareness campaigning of workers’ rights. However, FDW recruitment agencies and the Indonesian consulate eventually sent their employees to harass the organization. They would unrelentingly question their activities and the nature of their organization, and even threaten to call the police to put an end to their ‘illegal’ activities. Fearing the threat of legal action, ATKI found it sensible to re-locate and gather at the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry. After all, many FDWs were relying on ATKI’s assistance in the lawsuits they had filed against their employers - if ATKI were disbanded, it would negatively impact the wellbeing of these FDWs. After a month at the pier, Eni realized that ATKI did not necessarily have to gather there. The staff at Bethune informed her that ATKI’s activities were legal all along. With a better understanding of the legalities concerning their gatherings, ATKI returned to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, and with the support of a Bethune staff member, Edwina, they were able to repel the aggression of ATKI’s harassers.
Throughout ATKI’s efforts to organize migrant workers, Bethune House has consistently provided invaluable material support. Back then, not everyone owned a cell phone, and a Nokia costed two to three thousand Hong Kong dollars - more than half the monthly salary of a FDW. As a result, ATKI's hotline was set up in Bethune. They used the hotline to communicate with their members and migrant workers who needed help. While they were campaigning for workers’ rights in Victoria Park, ATKI members would encourage the FDWs to contact the hotline if they were encountering any problems, as the organization had set up a rotation system to answer the phone at Bethune. If there were no ATKI members present, a resident of the shelter would answer the phone, and in the event of serious emergencies, MFMW would be contacted. In order to service the hotline, Eni would stay at Bethune for many hours. Since she had no computer of her own to handle the paperwork for lawsuits, she would work on the in-house computer. Later, personal cell phones would slowly proliferate amongst ATKI members and FDWs in need of assistance were able to contact members directly. Were it not for Bethune’s much-needed material support, ATKI would not have been able to grow and develop.
In 2000, there was an influx of migrant workers who came to Hong Kong for the very first time, and Eni often came across Indonesian FDWs crying by the roadside in Causeway Bay. They knew they were being exploited, yet they didn’t know what to do or who to turn to for help. Many were only permitted a day or two of rest every month. ATKI’s surveys also revealed that as many as 80% of Indonesian FDWs had their wages cut short, while the various fees charged by their agencies reached up to 18,000 HKD. Like many FDWs, Eni had, for a long time, no idea that the Indonesian consulate was only a few streets away from where she had been spending her weekends in Causeway Bay. It did not help that the activities organized by a small handful of migrant worker organizations were largely cultural in nature and, apart from the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union, scarcely touched on labor issues. Therefore, ATKI’s initial members felt the need to organize what they dubbed “our own army”. They sought to do so by training new members to be familiar with the legal rights of FDWs, arming them with the knowhow to protest unjust policies. At the time, ATKI had a mobile, awareness-raising booth in Victoria Park that was usually located under the white tarpaulin where the city forums were held. By word of mouth, more and more people became aware that they could turn to ATKI for help.
Part of ATKI’s work is centred around providing migrant workers with a political education to help them find their voice and let them know where to seek assistance. As noted, recruitment agencies had, and continue to have, a great deal of control over their migrant workers. Knowing that many prospective FDWs had limited means to access information about their rights as a migrant worker, agencies would inculcate, through their training courses, the message that only they would be able to help FDWs in emergencies. They would discourage their FDWs from communicating with strangers, and fabricate job competition with Filipino migrant workers. Many Indonesian FDWs new to Hong Kong were misled to distrust strangers, making them docile and reluctant to seek help.
Over the years, ATKI has accumulated lots of experience dealing with exploitative recruitment agencies. For instance, agencies commonly confiscate the travel documents of their FDWs, barring them from reclaiming their documents on their own. Since Bethune has the expertise to deal with this situation, it has been assigning volunteers to accompany the newly arrived FDWs to reclaim their documents. There is simply no knowing what the agencies will do to the FDWs with the gall to reclaim their documents on their own; it is not unheard of for agencies to lock them up and keep them from leaving the city. Sometimes, when FDWs phone Bethune’s hotline for urgent assistance, volunteers from Bethune would escort them to the police station and financially assist them if needed, before bringing them back to Bethune. Many of the FDWs who phone Bethune tend to be in trouble with or abruptly terminated by their employers, and their agency could forcibly escort them to the airport to ship them back to their home country, so as to prevent any further conflict with their employer. Without ATKI and Bethune, it would almost be impossible for maligned FDWs to break free from the controlling grip of their agencies.
In addition to providing support directly to migrant workers, ATKI also engages in proactive initiatives. For example, in 2007, ATKI joined other Indonesian workers' organizations to establish PILAR (Persatuan Bmi Tolak Overcharging, an all-Indonesian alliance against resettlement overcharging), and organized educational forums on related issues.
How does ATKI recruit FDWs who are unaffiliated and uninvolved with Bethune House? Eni said this is not easy. ATKI members were typically migrant workers who turned to the organization to deal with their exploitative agency or employer. As they received help from ATKI, they befriended its members, eventually deciding to become part of it. As the politics of some FDWs do not align with that of the leftist ATKI, they may not want to join. Nonetheless, the organization encourages workers to set up their own groups. Its members will teach the workers how to organize and engage in their own advocacy activities. For those unwilling to commit full-time to running a formal organization, ATKI encourages them to aggregate into small support groups on social media. Most FDWs are well aware that a lack of unity, information, and interpersonal relationships can exacerbate their marginalization. Only by establishing organizations and a strong support network in the FDW community can it be possible to fight against their oppression. However, attracting members is difficult given the risky nature of the venture. Many would rather lead a stable life than to attract the attention of their agency, their employer, and the government. Eni noted that when ATKI members encourage workers to sue their employer who has been underpaying them, many workers commonly respond with "I can't do that, or my agency will blacklist me from working in Hong Kong". Understandably, yet unfortunately, exploited workers are afraid of biting the capitalist hand that feeds them.
That many Indonesian workers are reluctant to confront their oppressors or become politically involved also has to do with the historical scars left by Suharto’s rule over Indonesia. In 1965, Suharto, with the aid of the US government, overthrew the democratically-elected Sukarno and became the nation’s second president. Suharto’s 32-year rule was an era full of white terror. He oversaw the massacre of the Communists and innocent civilians who had backed Sukarno to consolidate his power. Putting Indonesian society under the heel of the army, his government often warned people not to engage in political activism. Many prominent trade unionists were either killed, imprisoned, or disappeared. Consequently, many of those who worked abroad were afraid of being surveilled by the Indonesian military. Their fear has since abated, as many can easily access information online these days. Even so, those who return to Indonesia to organize politically are still often harassed by the military. It is therefore difficult for organizations to openly discuss politics. With an entrenched political climate of repression, it is understandable that Indonesians remain wary about political organizations, trade unions, and workers’ rights activism. And it is precisely by capitalizating on these deep-set fears that the agencies are able to maintain their control over their FDWs abroad. Helping workers to overcome their apprehension towards political involvement has been a difficult task for ATKI.
Expanding into the wider world
ATKI’s influence has since moved beyond the confines of Hong Kong, having established ATKI-Indonesia and ATKI-Taiwan. Its Taiwanese branch was formed in 2009 by an intern at the Asian Pacific Mission for Migrants, who frequented Taiwan and ultimately organized Indonesian workers there to form ATKI-Taiwan.
The existence of ATKI-Indonesia, at a glance, may be perplexing: why would workers establish a migrant worker organization in their home country? For one, the Indonesian government’s inability to provide a decent life to its subjects, partly due to the structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, forces them to migrate abroad for better job opportunities. To solve the predicament facing both Indonesia’s youth and migrant workers, Indonesia’s citizens need to be organized to demand better employment opportunities as well as a greater say in political decision making to reverse policies that only benefit the rich. Moreover, ATKI-Indonesia is needed because homecoming migrant workers face a plethora of problems. The Indonesian government is inclined to view its returning workers as affluent, having worked in places with a high standard of living. As such, the labour-exporting industry extorts money from them through a variety of different means: recruitment agencies can charge them with extortionate fees for staying at their training center and for getting insured, and the government can get them to pay more for visa renewals and administrative services. There is even a terminal in Indonesian airports specifically for returning migrant workers that charged them extra fees.
The problems returning migrant workers face do not only come from the labour-exporting industry, but from their families as well. FDWs can be reticent when it comes to discussing the challenges they face working abroad, because they don’t want their families to worry about them. Indonesians therefore generally do not understand what working abroad entails, such as the extent to which migrant workers are oppressed, as well as Hong Kong’s high living expenses. The workers’ families may be unable to fully appreciate their remittances as a result. When ATKI talks about these matters, they advise FDWs that they must be honest about their problems with their family. This is partly why they set up ATKI-Indonesia in Jarkarta in 2008. Bethune had a hand in this - from 2003 to 2005, it helped organize meetings to allow ATKI to liaise with migrant workers who had returned home. By 2015, an alliance of migrant worker organizations, like ATKI and PILAR, would succeed in establishing KABAR BUMI (Keluarga Besar Buruh Migran Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Workers Family) in Indonesia.
All in all, organizing migrant workers are carried out under adverse circumstances. When organizing, ATKI members have to confront, for themselves and the workers they organize, the traumatic legacy of Suharto’s rule, so as to overcome their inclination to steer clear of political activism. Furthermore, migrant workers here are isolated, lack resources, and are exploited by their agency, employers, and the government in their home and host country. They face long working hours, having to work six days a week, during which there are no specified working hours due to the live-in rule. ATKI members can only contribute to their organization by working from their phones in the few precious hours of free time they have on a weekday. At the end of the day, even with her obligations to ATKI and other organizations, Eni is still a domestic worker. Since coming to Hong Kong, she has worked under five different employers, and has had to declare that she is a political activist every time she is contracted to a new employer. Luckily, she has consistently succeeded in finding employers who are supportive of her activist work, and has often managed to work for childless, non-elderly households that have a lighter workload. I am in awe of her balancing act between her domestic duties and her political activism - what excuses do Hong Kongers have for not organizing and fighting for their rights in their workplace?
It is undeniable that the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong has come very far. Despite all the talk about empowered workers, many community and labor organizations still treat FDWs as their clients with a case to be resolved. In contrast, Bethune House has remained true to its principle of actually empowering the migrant workers who reside there - from trusting migrant workers to fight their own court cases to providing invaluable assistance to develop ATKI. In turn, ATKI has taken up Bethune’s principle by encouraging workers to self-organize and unite in solidarity, so that they can have a better chance at breaking the complex, interconnected web of problems that FDWs face. ATKI has also blossomed into an internationalist organization with its branches extending to different countries. In this way, they are successfully responding to the neoliberal globalization of care work, which flings workers across the world to engage in undervalued, feminized labor. When it comes to empowering workers and fostering internationalism, what workers’ organization or social movement in Hong Kong can claim to be more successful than the migrant workers’ movement?
It is through the activities of ATKI that we can understand the profound contributions that Bethune House has been making to the migrant workers’ movement. ATKI is the tree whose branches spread far and wide, and Bethune is the soil that has been nourishing the tree. Not long ago, I read an essay, The World Within a World, regarding how working-class organizations in Britain, steeped in socialist tradition, were able to nurture dedicated, informed activists. While these organizations may appear to be apolitical, they provided the working-class the means to develop their potential as individuals through the manifold interest classes and hobby clubs that permeated all levels of working-class communities. I bring this up because Bethune House is also a world within a world that gives FDWs a temporary place of refuge in which they can strengthen themselves and return to the world as stronger, more independent women who are ready to fight for meaningful change.
This invaluable space for growth, however, may not be around for much longer. A long-time donor has rescinded their financial aid, and Bethune House has lost half of its annual expenses. They are now embroiled in a serious crisis of survival. Due to its length and the heaviness of its content, this article took a great deal of time to finish, and there are probably not many people who have managed to finish it. However, I hope that the few remaining readers are sufficiently compelled and moved to consider making a much-needed donation to Bethune House.
You can support Bethune House by donating through the following methods:
- Pay online via YouCaring: tinyurl.com/yao84qoj
- via Paypal: email@example.com
- If paying by check, please make payable to The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd., and send it to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral, 4-8 Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong.
- Deposit into the bank account #284-8-241309 at Hang Seng Bank, The Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, Ltd.
- Go to MFMW Limited at St. John Cathedral in person.
All monetary donations will be able to help our residents in need:
$130 can support a resident at Bethune House for a day
$1,000 can support a recipient for a week
$3,900 can support a recipient’s monthly expenditure
$500 can supports one-day’s worth of accommodation for all residents in Bethune House’s two shelters
All cash donations of HKD$100 and above are eligible for tax exemption!
For inquiries about Bethune House, please call:
（1）Edwina Antonio (English) - 9488 9044
（2）Johannie Tong (Chinese) - 6306 9599