Elis died of slave-like life in agency center

Crowded "dormitory" provided by agency company in Hong Kong, with workers sleepi

An Indonesian migrant domestic worker recently died in a Hong Kong work agency hostel. We re-post an article from WKNews that examines the collusion between Hong Kong authorities, the Indonesian government and private agencies and the effect it has on the situation of Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong.

HK "dormitory": 16 people in 100 square feet space, or staying outdoor

The Indonesian domestic worker Cela had been living in a dormitory operated by Sunlight Employment Agency. During her stay, there were 30 - 40 workers living in a tiny space, sleeping on the floor with all their belongings. When this 'dormitory' was full, workers would have to sleep on the terrace outside - the place where Elis was hit by the huge concrete bloc, and died five days later. After Elis' injury, Sunlight claimed that the terrace was just for storing workers' belongings instead of sleeping. However, such claim was refuted by members of ATKI, as several members of ATKI had been arranged to sleep there.

Cela described the life in "dormitory" as humiliating. For example, there were two toilets in the dormitory, one for the agency staff and the other for the workers. Workers have to queue for their one single toilet even if the staff toilet is not in use. On the other hand, they have to ask for staff's permission to cook. Otherwise they would be scolded.

The case of Sunlight is not exclusive. In general, the condition of dormitories provided by Hong Kong agencies is appalling. Yu, a volunteer worker helping Indonesian migrant workers told the WKNews that once she saw 16 workers staying at a subdivided flat of merely 100 square feet. Inside the room, there are two bunk beds - each for 8 workers. Besides, there is a tall wardrobe, a small desk with two laptops. "Everyone has to squeeze through the tiny space like a piece of paper", said Yu.

The living condition is harsher in the training centers in Indonesia. Before working overseas, Indonesian workers must receive training from local agencies for months. Eki, an Indonesian migrant worker who stayed there for 5 months recalled that the food provided was insufficient. The noodles and fried rice provided by the center had no meat at all. On the other hand, the center imposes strict control on the workers. They are required to go to bed at 9:00 pm, monitored by the staff. During bed time, they are not even allowed to talk. In some centers no bed is provided and the workers have to sleep on floors. Mattresses are provided without blankets. So the workers have to bring their own blankets and share with others.

Indonesian center: confinement instead of training

ATKI described the discipline imposed on workers by Sunlight as confinement. According to Cela, the agency requires workers to stay overnight in the dormitory. However, workers are treated in an even more inhumane way in Indonesia.

Once after their arrival to the training center, the recruited workers will have their hair cut. Eki, who had been working in Malaysia, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia before told us that, 80% of the migrant workers she met before were forced to cut their hair short. Centers always claim that it is because the employers want workers to be "clean". However volunteer workers think that such an act is to train workers to become submissive. Eki said the staff in center cut the hair casually. It is extremely humiliating to girls. Once she saw a girl cried for her long hair being removed.

To stop them from escaping, all migrant workers are kept like prisoners in the training center. They are not allowed to go out of the center during the training period. The agency only allows them to meet their families for a few hours on Sunday. Their mobile phones are also confiscated to ensure that they cannot contact anyone outside. Similarly, some agencies would allow workers use their phones just for a few hours on Sunday. "We have to queue for getting the phone on Sunday, and return it to the agency at 5:00 pm," said Eki. To control the workers, the agencies would confiscate their phone when they go overseas, to avoid them from reaching their families and friends. Therefore workers overseas will have to rely only on their agency as their only source of information.

Workers are confined in the center until they are employed. Normally they have to wait for 3 months in the center. During that time, they still need to do the unpaid service for the center. But this is not always the case. Eki was hired 2 months after entering the center, but she had to wait till the end of her emploter's current domestic worker's contract. Therefore she stayed at the center for total 5 months. Eki said she met some other workers who stayed there for 7 to 9 months.

Charging whatever items: bed, electricity, laptop

On the other hand, the agencies in Hong Kong are trying their best to get as much money from workers as they could. Yu, the volunteer worker told WKNews that, a dormitory in Hong Kong charges $30-50 per bed per night. If the worker is hired under the same agency, she would be charged for $20 per night. "Which means, even the workers directly hired by the company also have to pay for accommodations.", said Yu.

If an employer do not want his domestic migrant worker to stay at home due to various reasons (for eample, he has to leave Hong Kong for a period of time, or the elderly to be taking cared of passed away), he could put his worker in the dormitory and the agency would charge the employer directly.

To squeeze more money from workers, the dormitory charges $5 per hour for charging the phone battery, and $8-10 per hour for using computers.

Over pricing.Forced Labour.Excessive agency fee

Such overcharging is equally serious in Indonesian training center. According to Eki, the workers need a lot of snacks because the center does not provide enough food. Once again, the only way the confined workers can get snack is from the center. Taking advantage of being the sole supplier, the center charges double price. For example, a chips priced IDR 2000 (around HKD 1.18) is charged IDR 4000 in the center.

Though it claims itself a "training center", workers only study for 5 hours a day at most. The lessons are taught by people who worked overseas as domestic workers before. In the center, workers will learn about cooking, caring of elderly and children, and the language of the place where they are heading to. However they are taught only the language of service (such as "Good moring, sir/madam", "What would you like for breakfast?") instead of communication.

For the rest of the day, workers have to do unpaid work for the center - except for the prayer times and during meals. Workers are asked to clean the center daily, do the laundry and cook for everyone, and to make coffee for staff. All these works are unpaid.

On the other hand, before entering the training center, a worker is required to pay a large sum of fee, which means that she is asked to pay for working there without salary. Cela told WKNews that Sunlight charged her an agency fee equivalent to the salary of a whole year. Unfortunately she was fired by the first employer after 7 months. Sunlight then found another employer for her, charging an extra fee equivalent to five month's salary. However Cela's case is not simply "unfortunate". As told by Eki, many agencies encourage employers to fire the workers after the workers complete the payment, such that they can earn extra fee. Such act is illegal because the law of Hong Kong stated that the agency fee cannot exceed 10% of the monthly salary. Though the law was never enforced strictly.

Dormitories are illegal, ignored by HK government

In fact, the agency dormitories are operated like commercial hostels. It would be illegal if these dormitories do not get government licence. According to the Hotel And Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance (Chapter 349), all places offering short term rent for accommodation period shorter than 28 days must get official licence.

However, as Yu mentioned, the Hong Kong government pays no effort in regulating them. According to Yu, the government should regulate the floor plan and maximum capacity.

Unlimited power of agencies backed up by government

The power of agencies is guaranteed by policies from both the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments. The UUPPTKILN39/2004 bill issued by Indonesian government allows workers to go overseas only through the arrangement of government-licenced agencies. As a result, the agencies have huge control over migrant workers, including charging them excessive agency fee, confiscating their passports, and restricting their freedom.

To ensure they get the desired agency fee, the agents force the workers to borrow from lending companies. Therefore the workers are actually working to pay their "debt". Even worse, the Indonesian agents cooperate with the local police. In case the workers fail to pay the agency fee, the police will confiscate their property, including their houses, land and automobiles.

Furthermore, according to the "system online" policy from Indonesian consulate, a migrant worker has no freedom to choose her own job. The policy requires the agencies to get licence to access a Hong Kong designed intranet system maintained by the consulate. This system enables the consulate to obtain information of each individual worker, including the agency she belongs to, her employer and the details of her contract. The agency has to input the financial condition of works, including the amount of agency fee to be paid.

All Indonesian migrant workers have to apply for working visa through these licenced agencies. They cannot go to the consulate to apply for it directly. At the same time, the agencies and consulate keep the workers' passports to force them to finish their payment. However, even after workers completed their payment, their accounts are still managed by the agencies. The workers have no choice to change their agencies, even if the agencies fail to give any support.

Eki points out that, a migrant worker has to wait till the end of her two-year contract in order to change to another agencies, even if she had finished the payment. Since the workers were told on the first day that they can only seek help from agencies, workers always contact their agencies when being mistreated by employers. But in fact, the agencies often neglect the complaints of workers and stand on the employers' side.

If a worker wants to end the contract and change to a more helpful agency, she will have to write to the consulate and wait for a 2-8 week's period of time to finish the application. However, according to the "2 weeks rule", workers can stay in Hong Kong for only two weeks after ending the contact. There would not be enough time for them to find a new agency and employer. As a result of the joint restriction imposed by "system online" policy and "2 weeks rule", workers are forced to work under harsh employers and unhelpful agencies.

(Names and some details have been changed to protect the informants.)

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Statement on the Death of Elis from ATKI (Associasi Buruh Migran Indonesia di Hong Kong)

Elis didn't just die. She was killed.

Elis was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not because she agreed to be there but because she was forced to stay there.

To begin with, it was the anti-poor government of Indonesia and its labour export programme that brought Elis in that place at that time.

It was the policy of the Indonesian government forcing migrants to go through an agency that put Elis in that place at that time.

It was the arrangement agreed by the employer and the agency that place Elis in that unsafe, unhealthy, unhygienic and unfortunate place at that time.

It was the failure of the Hong Kong government to strictly regulate the operation and illegal activities of the agencies that put Elis in that place at that time.

It was the slave-like treatment of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong where the government doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with migrant workers being kept in holding areas run by agencies and with the consent of the employers - that place Elis in that room at that specific time.

Yes, the building management must be made accountable for the poor condition of the building structure that caused that piece of concrete to fall and crushed Elis' body. But we should not forget that there are others who are equally accountable for forcing Elis to leave her family and country, making money out of her misery and poverty, treating her like a slave and putting her in that wrong place at that wrong time.

Justice for Elis!
Justice for all migrants!
End Labour Export!
End Slavery!