Migrant Movement on the Rise
Cynthia Abdon Tellez
As a development worker among migrants for more than three decades now engaged in direct service to those in distress as well as the empowerment of the community, I can say that the building of the grassroots movement in Hong Kong did not happen overnight. Throughout the years, faces have changed save for a few who have managed to stay on as domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Bout though in different ways, still, women migrants speak the same language, sing the same song, recite the same poem, then and now.
Organizing migrant women is not easy, more so to maintain. Migration has left them with no job security. Thus, it is amazing how organisations of migrant women can survive when migration is so fluid and the status of migrants is so insecure.
Thirty years ago, cultural presentations of migrants did not include rap. The number of Indonesians in Hong Kong was also not that large 20 years ago and, in fact, Thais placed second in population after the Filipinos but with a large gap. Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan domestic workers came in trickles, hired by their own compatriots. Nepali women were as well nowhere to be seen if not with their husbands who were in the Gurkha army.
But they sung the same songs, they recited the same poems, they cited incidents from their own experiences that were essentially the same as what are being said nowadays: physical assault, sexual molestation, verbal abuse, labour violations, and the desire to go home for good.
Those who encountered problems fought hard, albeit, individually at first until they found the value of being together and how much can be achieved when they stand their ground. They learned the importance of finding support network when they are together.
The strength the migrant women mustered in struggling together calling for changes in the policies that control them gave them added strength. This was a very important development. They learned the process of analysing their condition, their situation and finding ways to properly address them. They learned the process of analysing how migrant women are further marginalised and excluded, treated to be different from locals and other migrant people. They started to lobby sympathetic Hong Kong legislative council members and government department officers to make laws and policies favourable to women migrants. They saw the need to learn the art of monitoring if good policies were implemented or not.
Their stories have been repeatedly told in similar settings, in different tones. They were told in different voices but with the same conviction. Together they told their stories, they persevered and spoke for themselves.
Yet, their stories could not really be complete if they were to other people in other countries. Campaigns of migrant women, even if it is localised (local issues, local policies) needed support from women’s groups in a sending or receiving countries because the experiences were not too different. Issues needed to also be worked internationally and regionally in coordinated campaigns.
This was realised and still is advanced by internationally coordinated formations most notable of which is the International Migrants Alliance, or IMA, which is genuinely composed of grassroots led by them.
Such was the impression created by the Asian Migrant Women’s Summit (of domestic workers) in Hong Kong. It impressed and established confidence that the only the grassroots women migrants themselves could bring about the change that they want. Only they can make their history.
This they did and continue to do so. Despite the snags along the way, they honed their capacity to step back to learn and to step forward as they did on 31st August 2014.
The 490-seat capacity of the auditorium at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University that was filled with 600 migrants coming from Nepal, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. While the overwhelming majority of them were migrant women, there were also local and expatriate women, and students who came to be with them.
Never mind the long walk to the venue, tunnels to pass and heat to bear. Migrant women and their supporters spent their otherwise free time or their day-off not resting, but busily and seriously attending a summit conference. But as one participant said when I asked if she regretted missing out going to the beach with her friends, she said, “not a bit.”
She said, “This is a learning experience. I never expected to be attending a conference while in Hong Kong as a domestic worker. How was it that we can easily articulate what we said there? I never imagined me understanding concepts outside of the kitchen, outside of the toilet, beyond the markets, past my ward’s school. I am in a university sharing my ideas, like I am in a classroom. But I actually am learning. Developing concepts, which I thought were only for academics and policy makers. I realised that I can influence policy makers if I am with my organisation, if I assert what can be good for my sector as migrant workers, as migrant women. I say end Slavery, end Social Exclusion! I have learned new concepts of development though I have yet to digest that. I know it will work both for this place where I work as well as for my homeland which I was forced to leave temporarily, I hope.”
With the enthusiasm, militance, and vigorous participation of those in the summit, I know that her hope will live and will be realised.