Justice is what we are calling for here, Justice is what we want the ASEAN to take
Eni Lestari, Chair of the International Migrant Alliance, addresses participants of the ASEAN People’s Forum, speaking on the panel on “Making the ASEAN people responsive.”
23, April 2015, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Lestari called attention to ASEAN countries neglect to address forced labour migration
Good morning, everyone!
My name is Eni Lestari. I am an Indonesian. I am a woman. And I am a migrant domestic worker.
Fifteen years ago, I was a victim of maltreatment and labour exploitation. 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 fee and underpaid and other maltreatments. After I left my employer and stayed in Bethune House Women’s Refuge and met fellow migrant domestic workers, I realized that the abuse I suffered was widespread and institutionalized. Being a domestic worker, I was not allowed to work because of my case and I started to organize migrant domestic workers. Eventually, I won, learning that I was not the only one suffering, that this oppression against us is institutionalized and systematic, that the only way I can fight it is organize my fellow migrants and lead the movement.
Fifteen years after, Erwiana came into our lives. She was the Indonesian domestic worker who suffered seven months of torture and physical abuse from her employer. With a movement that was both local and international, an engagement that was both legal and on the streets, a campaign that is both online and offline, Erwiana won her case and many of us felt vindicated, many of us were inspired. We can do something for our oppressed sisters, that together, we can make a change.
I tell you these stories because we are two of the millions of women in Southeast Asia who were forced to leave our families behind in order to survive. We are among the many women, and men, who suffer from modern-day slavery, being stripped off of our humanity, because of the root causes of forced labour migration. We are part of the many people, of a movement calling for change to this system of oppression and exploitation.
And this is why I am here.
Our governments in the ASEAN are talking about ASEAN Integration, about the ASEAN Economic Community. And I begin to wonder: is it any different?
Will it take a different path from the World Trade Organization that championed neoliberal policies that have spelled disaster for many economies and peoples? Will it be creating equal trade and economic agreements that will ensure the economic growth of each country while respecting sovereignty of nations and rights of people?
Will it be different from the Global Forum on Migration and Development that has touted the migration for development paradigm, a neoliberal paradigm that only meant facilitating and intensifying global labour export but at the expense of migrant workers? Will the ASEAN be finally taking a firm categorical stand in favor of migrant workers’ interests?
Will it wield the political will to embrace the Bandung principles that were formed and united on by various States in Indonesia sixty years ago today? Will it create mechanisms, programs and schemes that will finally answer the root causes of forced labour migration, developing industries and creating jobs back in our home countries?
Will it meaningfully address the fundamental causes of women’s oppression? Will the ASEAN be accountable to women and build economies that will counter the dehumanizing impact of neoliberal globalization? Will they create a platform that will truly empower us, instead of treating us like doormats and placemats in an increasingly oppressive global social order?
Because it if it is not and it won’t, then the ASEAN is no different. Commodification and flexibilisation of labour, intensification of labour export, liberalization of economies, exploitation of people, especially women in marginalized sectors, degradation of our environment, injustice will prevail.
Most of these platforms we have engaged with, whether outside or inside. And in all our engagements, we realize that either they have championed neoliberalism or said nothing about it. They have become, not irrelevant, but a boon to many of us migrant workers because they have not only left us out but allowed injustice to happen to many of us.
Justice is what we are calling for here. Justice is what we want the ASEAN to take. Development justice is what we demand and will work for.
Justice that redistributes wealth, power, resources and opportunities between countries, between rich and poor and between men and women. Justice that means building economies based on solidarity, sharing and justice; and equally value the labour and contributions of all people. Justice that aims to make this planet habitable for all people, particularly the most marginalized, now and in the future. Justice that does not only promote gender equality, but seeks to end patriarchy and the systems that ensure women are cheap or unpaid labour, in the market and at home. And finally, accountability to the people ensures that this process makes governments finally accountable for the commitments they have repeatedly made and repeatedly denied to the billions of people.
Not many of us migrant workers know anything about ASEAN. What they will do here in Malaysia is something that we will only see in a friend’s timeline, or on a news report. I don’t even know if our situation on the ground will be reflected upon by our State leaders, will be taken up and be changed for the better.
After this forum, I will go back to Hong Kong and continue working as a domestic worker. I will continue organizing my fellow Indonesian sisters, informing them about their rights, and encouraging them to join an organization. I will continue working. For how long I don’t know, like all my sisters, they also don’t know. That’s the reason why I am a part of an organization, of a movement. Because somehow, here in the movement, I and many others feel empowered, many of us can do something to change our lives for the better. And we can see change.
I hope the ASEAN will take up the issues of us women migrants and many other marginalized. We hope that the ASEAN will become people-centered, instead of profit-driven. We hope that instead of building a community that will only benefit the ruling elite, it will create a big space for many of us to speak up, be engaged, be involved. A development that is truly for the people and with the people. Nothing about us, without us.
Otherwise, they will be no different.