Working Toward Justice
By Brad Taylor
Brad Taylor, a Global Justice Volunteer for Global Ministries, shares his experience with injustice toward migrant domestic workers. Taylor serves the Bethune House in Hong Kong, SAR, P.R. of China
In my work as a Global Justice Volunteer, I accompany clients to the offices of their placement agencies in order to retrieve passports and employment contracts that were being unlawfully withheld from them. I have also gone with clients to the labor relations office for what's called a "conciliation meeting," where clients try and come to a settlement with their former employer on claims they have filed against them. In cases like these, I am unable to translate for clients who don’t speak English, but I am there for moral support and to make sure things go well. I've also accompanied a client to the Labor Tribunal, which is a court where a judge will grant/deny claims that a worker has made against their employer in the event that a settlement cannot be reached in the conciliation meeting.
Additionally, one of the clients of the shelter has been engaged in a criminal court case that she lodged against her employer. I was able to go to the High Court on several occasions to hear her testimony, show her support, and also gain a little understanding of how the court system works in Hong Kong.
On Sundays, I have been integrating with a Filipino political group composed of domestic workers that is very active in advocating for the rights of migrant workers, and to ending the discrimination and illegal practices that employee placement agencies enact against them. I've participated in a peaceful protest against unlawful agency practices, obtained signatures for petitions to submit to the Philippine Consulate on maintaining and extending their rights, and handed out surveys to migrant workers on their spending habits. The surveys will be used to publish papers to purposely show the Hong Kong government that migrant wages are too low for workers to support themselves or their families.
Injustice Runs Deep
The one thing that has had the biggest impact in the past two weeks has been learning more about how deep the injustice runs towards migrant domestic workers, especially those from Indonesia. We received a formal orientation on Indonesian foreign domestic workers concerning the nearly inhuman requirements for becoming a domestic worker, and how unjust laws make it extremely difficult for the migrant workers to escape a cycle of debt. It's unreal how much these workers sacrifice in order to have a chance to support themselves and their families. The Indonesian migrant workers are forced to be employed through placement agencies, most of which require the workers to be confined to an almost prison-like facility for months and months of training.
During training workers are not allowed to leave the facility. They sleep on the floors of overcrowded rooms and have little chance to communicate with their families. These agencies charge them enormous fees for the training, which is completely lawful according to the Indonesian government. If the workers do not pay their fees, the agencies will threaten to harass or harm their families in some way. Often an Indonesian domestic worker will forfeit the first seven months of their salary to pay these fees. Sometimes the employers themselves will benefit from these transactions and make money from the agency (this is very illegal). After having paid the fees, agencies will then encourage employers to fire their domestic worker and hire a new one so that they can both continue to benefit from the fees.
In essence, domestic workers are often not treated as humans, but as goods to be bought and sold. I wish we had received this orientation earlier because now I have a newfound respect for these workers who are trying to fight injustice by claiming their rights as human beings. It opened my eyes to what this part of the world is really like and has only bolstered my motivation to help these people to seek and obtain justice.
Discerning Court Law
The other justice issue that has come up is related to what I learned from attending the court hearings. In many ways, the court system in Hong Kong is similar to that in the United States - there's a judge, a jury, a prosecution and defense. One major difference that stuck out to me, though, was that the client, who lodged the police case, was only treated as a witness, meaning she was not allowed to consult with the attorney representing her. On the other hand, the defendant was able to strategize with his attorney and come up with a plan for the cross-examination. I can understand the logic behind this law, that they don't want the witness to be coached into skewing the truth, but it also seems unfair that the victim in this case was not able to talk with her attorney in order to best structure her testimony and have the best possible chance to convince the jury of her side of the story. The court is a system designed to give justice, but in this client's case it seems she's not getting a fair chance of receiving it.