The power of labour
Eni Lestari, speaking at the People’s General Assembly
27 September 2015
New York City, USA
I’m not surprised that I wasn’t approved by the President of the General Assembly to speak. I am not an international celebratory. I’m not the head of a Northern INGO, I don’t have access to governments or the wealthy and powerful. And I don’t have an uplifting story to tell that makes it possible to believe that poverty can be solved by ‘scaling up’ skills or credit or growth.
Mine is not a story of rags to riches. Those stories are fairytales told to us to make us sleepy.
My story is not a remarkable one. It’s quite unremarkable. It’s a story that is shared by millions of women around the world. It’s an unglamorous, common story of poverty, exploitation, migration and discrimination.
When I was young I had hopes and dreams for education, a career and prosperity. I wanted to contribute to my family and allow my parents to grow old in comfort and dignity. We had just emerged from years of a dictatorship and we believed that that we would finally be able to determine our own futures and end crony capitalism.
But that didn’t happen. The Asian Financial Crisis brought a new form of crony capitalism – one imposed by the International Monetary Fund, designed to protect the interests of financiers, hedge funds and multi-national corporations. We were forced into austerity and families like mine paid the price.
Education became unaffordable. The costs of food, water, healthcare all skyrocketed. Public assets were privatized and became inaccessible to most. Like many, my parents went into debt and eventually had to sell their land and business. I left school. But there were no jobs and many unemployed. I was left with no choice but to migrate to Hong Kong and become a domestic worker to help my siblings stay in school and my family to survive.
But the promises made by recruitment agencies proved to be another fairytale. Indonesian migrant domestic workers are all made to sign bank loans. Our wages are routinely denied and the conditions we work in exploitative to say the least. I quickly realised that, despite working 14 hour days and being on call 24, I was not going to be paid.
My salary was never enough to provide for my family. My father could not afford life saving medical attention. The debt would have been too much for my family.
Since the millennium declaration was signed millions more women have been forced into migration and into exploitative labour. We are the engine of economic growth. The ‘Asian miracle’. Yet we see none of the benefits. We are not meant to.
We are living in a world where multi-national corporations have captured our resources, our labour and our democracies. Their wealth is dependent on our exploitation. We have produced growth but 95% of the income from that growth has gone to the richest 40% – that doesn’t include us. We live in a world where half the world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the global population and where 67 people own as much as 3.5 billion. And their wealth, their consumption, their greed is not just coming at the expense of our labour, land and lives but making our planet uninhabitable. They are the cause of climate change.
The Sustainable Development Goals include targets that we all agree with and fought hard for. But despite all our best efforts they still insist on growth and a continuation of an inherently unfair, exploitative system.
They missed the chance to introduce a universal living wage, they missed the chance to develop a global tax body, they missed the chance to review and end trade agreements when they are harmful to human rights. They missed the chance to change the economic systems that depend and produce exploitation.
If there is a remarkable chapter in my story it’s not one of individual triumph but one of collectively, of solidarity, of the power of movements. My own experience inspired me to work with other women exploited by employers and an unfair system. I started the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers and the International Migrant’s Alliance. And this is the real story of change. Through movements we have made small increases in the wages of domestic workers and we saw Erwiana’s employer locked up. The only way to achieve our rights and the ‘world we want’ is to organise, to act collectively and to use the power of a just demand, the power of the 99%, the power of labour, to completely dismantle this system.
And that is why the People’s General Assembly is so important. We have to start imagining ways to use the power of the many against the tyranny of the wealthy. We are here because another world is possible. And to quote Arundhati Roy – she is on her way.