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The Asia-Pacific in the Age of Transnational Mobility
The Search for Community and Identity on and through Social Media
By Catherine Gomes
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2016 Catherine Gomes
All rights reserved.
FEMALE INDONESIAN MIGRANT DOMESTIC WORKERS IN HONG KONG: A CASE STUDY OF ADVOCACY THROUGH FACEBOOK AND THE STORY OF ERWIANA SULISTYANINGSIH
Panizza Allmark and Irfan Wahyudi
Hong Kong is a major receiving country for migrant workers, particularly women from Southeast Asia who work as domestic assistants or caregivers. One in five Hong Kong households employs migrant domestic workers (Sim 2003, 479) and there are over three hundred thousand migrant domestic workers in the country, with just about half of them from Indonesia (Amnesty International 2013). The Asian Migrant Centre (2007, 6) claims that Hong Kong is the premium destination for Indonesian migrant workers because of its moderately higher salaries, the perception of superior laws and regulations and an ambience of independence. Previous research on Indonesian migrant workers' lives in Hong Kong has mostly focused on the relationship between migrant workers and law, human rights and inequality, gender issues, political action and civil rights (Lai 2007; Ignacio and Mejia 2009; Liu 2010). However, there has been very little significant research relating Indonesian female domestic workers' activities to social media activism.
In Indonesia and Hong Kong the governments do not play an active role in controlling social media. Hence, both regions share similarities of easily accessible social media. In Indonesia, in particular, new media has impacted on political processes (Nugroho and Syarief 2013). Similarly, in Hong Kong, social media played a pivotal role in publicizing the Umbrella Revolution – the youth-led protest movement of 2014. 'The activists treated social media and new media as their basic information source' (Lee and Ting 2015, 382). Social media provides opportunities as a source for knowledge and for building community. Furthermore, the reach of social media provides a wider potential for impact and transnational connections.
Indonesian migrant domestic workers (IMDWs) in Hong Kong are heavy social media users. Most use Facebook as their communication channel with fellow migrants from Indonesia. They are live-in maids and generally work in households for more than twelve hours per day. Most cannot go outside without the permission of their employers. Female migrant domestic workers are routinely secluded in the employers' households, and this can constitute a challenge for them in negotiating their collective diasporic identity. Facebook, accessed via mobile phones, provides the opportunity for these women to create status updates and wait for responses from fellow migrant workers. This activity helps them cope with the isolation and loneliness of their daily lives. Engagement with fellow IMDWs via Facebook is not only a network of friendship, but also a way to communicate and share similar concerns and interests. Between 2013 and 2014, as a part of his PhD research on IMDWs in Hong Kong, Irfan Wahyudi conducted in-depth interviews with IMDW group representatives and nongovernmental organizations and held four focus group discussions with around twenty female IMDWs aged between 20 and 40. His research also provided some insight into the Facebook practices of IMDWs.
The following comments describe some of the restrictions encountered by one IMDW and their behaviours to circumvent them.
I access Facebook frequently, from my cell phone even while I am working. To camouflage the mobile phone, I put it under my apron, or secretly go to the toilet and access Facebook and reply to messages. After five or seven minutes, I flush the toilet as if I were really using it. This has become a common secret. Actually, it is not our fault, since they [employers] want us to be available 24 hours. (Interview with Irfan Wahyudi, 6 June 2013)
Access to mobile phones with Internet capability, and access to social media sites such as Facebook, provide not only an opportunity for social connection but also for social activism (Lim 2013; Abbott 2013; Weiss 2013). For example, participants in Wahyudi's research asserted that Facebook was used for forwarding relevant news (from online news portals) about migrant workers and human rights abuses.
This chapter considers human rights abuses of IMDWs in Hong Kong and how social media, particularly Facebook, plays a role in advocacy. In particular, we look at a case study of a January 2014 event in which 23-year-old Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an IMDW in Hong Kong, was severely beaten by her employer and became a symbol of the exploitation of female migrant workers. When photographs of Erwiana's bruised and battered body were uploaded to Facebook, they evoked widespread outrage. Within 24 hours, the photos went viral and attracted worldwide attention to the plight of this young woman. As Carol Chan asserts, migrant activists managed to provoke enough public uproar that led to unprecedented attention being given to the case by state actors in Hong Kong and Indonesia (2014, 6964).
In this chapter, we investigate, through a qualitative case study, the way social media enabled this story and the wider issue of migrant workers' plights to be disseminated across national boundaries. It highlights how social media 'operates as an interdependent grassroots community of individuals, organisations, and sites whose relevance and authority are established through interaction and participation' (Andreas 2007, 2). These groups might even be considered a 'counterpublic'. Hjorth and Arnold (2013, 11) assert that through social media, multiple publics are formed, which allows for affinity and political action.
A useful framework for the analysis of social media and activism is Nancy Fraser's (1997) term the subaltern counterpublic. She draws attention to the fact that
in stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics. It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions that their emancipatory potential resides. (Fraser 1997, 82)
In the case of Erwiana the activist groups may be considered a counterpublic that is concerned with issues of human rights, of conveying solidarity and seeking justice for domestic migrant workers.
Issues Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers Encounter in Hong Kong
A discussion of migrant labour and the activities of migrants in the host country cannot be separated from issues of diaspora. Rogers Brubaker asserts that the most common definition of diaspora refers to part of a population that 'lives as a minority outside its ethnonational "homeland"' (2005, 5). Keiko Yamanaka and Nicole Piper (2005), in their report for the United Nations, tell us that currently there are over two million migrant women workers in the Southeast and East Asia. In Hong Kong over 80 per cent of migrant workers are women (Amnesty International 2013). Female IMDWs in Hong Kong need to work hard in the host country without legal assurance of their citizenship and with the added pressure of maintaining connections and responsibilities to their families in their homeland.
Significantly, female domestic workers' contracts often last for no more than two years and exclude them from legal settlement in Hong Kong; however, they are able to continually renew their contracts. This situation has produced high numbers of migrant domestic workers who have lived in Hong Kong for more than ten years, and who have spent their working lives as provisional workers with few rights. Aihwa Ong's notion of Hong Kong as a space of neo-liberal exception, which refers to how 'neoliberalism interacts with regimes of ruling and regimes of citizenship practices' reflect practices such as this, where the migrant domestic workers do not gain the benefit of citizenship but are rather subject to the disturbing cultural logic of transnationality (2006, 6).
At the same time, we also need to recognize that the use of domestic workers has existed for centuries in Chinese cultures, where there is a long tradition of servitude. Hsieh Bao Hua (2014), in her study of China from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, suggests that in Imperial China those in servitude were part of the vast social stratum, and its practice was widespread in urban areas, in 'which most servile labourers migrated from agricultural villages' (xxii). The tradition of middle-class and affluent households employing house servants was prevalent in the late twentieth century and still prevails in the early twenty-first century. Domestic labourers now migrate from agricultural villages in nearby foreign countries such as Indonesia.
The practice of acquiring domestic labourers is necessitated by Hong Kong's modernity, which has led to a rise in local Hong Kong women entering the workforce, thus creating a demand for domestic labour that cannot be met by the local population. Hence, there is a need for foreign workers to take on the domestic duties. The labour of the domestic migrants 'privileges the upper and middle classes of Hong Kong', where migrant women might be considered the prey of 'neoliberal global capitalist forces' (Constable 2009, 155). Thus, worldwide rapid economic growth, which is evident from the United Arab Emirates to Hong Kong and other economically thriving areas, has brought increased income due to developments in manufacturing and services, an increase in the number of graduates from the tertiary sector, and an increase in local women entering the workforce. As a result of higher disposable incomes and two-income families, locals (and expatriates) who do not have the time or are reluctant to engage in domestic work have also created a demand for female migrant labour.
In her report for Human Rights Watch, Nisha Varia explains that 'countries with a highly-educated, highly-skilled workforce often have difficulty finding local workers for low-paying jobs and have created special immigration schemes for domestic workers' (2007, 5, 9). Furthermore, the sanctioning of foreign domestic workers was a way of increasing the labour supply by encouraging more women from rural areas to enter the urban workforce (Athukorala and Manning 1999, 141). There has been previous research concerning migrant domestic workers in the Asian region (Ford and Piper 2007; Yeoh 2007; Rahman et al. 2005). This work builds on the idea that in economic globalization, trade and capital are linked to the global movements of people. Much like Singapore, Hong Kong's modernization and the corresponding increase in women in the workforce have created a subordinate group of transnational migrants who are subject to social and cultural upheaval and exploitation.
Stereotypes of the Domestic Migrant Worker in Hong Kong
In Indonesia the IMDWs have been popularly known as 'the foreign-exchange heroes' as they attract billions of dollars of income for their country (Chan 2014; Nurchyati 2010). The financial remittances from transnational labour migration to Indonesia have been extremely beneficial for the nation. For example, in 2013 Indonesia received US$7.4 billion worth of remittances from about six million migrant workers abroad (Chan 2014, 6954). In major airports in Indonesia, the officials greet arriving Indonesian migrant workers with large signs displaying 'Welcome Foreign Exchange Heroes'. Nurchayati (2010) describes the government's policy to send migrant workers abroad as a significant part of their solution to solve economic challenges. She states, 'Since the end of the oil boom era in the early 1980s, migrant workers have become one of Indonesia's major contributors of foreign exchange' (2010, 13). Chan highlights that 'the Indonesian state is one among many neoliberalizing states that actively promote labor migration as a temporary solution to national unemployment and poverty' (2014, 6951). Chan further asserts that the 'Indonesian state and recruitment agents promote migration not only in its economic promises and advantages, but also in terms of gendered, moral, and religious or spiritual development – such as representing migration in terms of carrying out a patriotic or (feminine) familial duty' (2014, 6956). As such, Indonesia has promoted transnational female labour migration as positively contributing to the nation. Furthermore, there is direct targeting of women with little education, and from rural areas, to engage in labour migration and become the 'heroes' of Indonesia.
Hong Kong has been identified as one of the most popular countries for female IMDWs who work in domestic service as maids or caregivers. (Lai 2011; Hsia 2009). According to Susan Blackburn (2004), the prospect of work overseas has attracted many Indonesian women because of opportunities to earn a higher income than they receive back home. The Asian Migrant Centre notes that IMDWs started to arrive in Hong Kong in 1985 (2007, 6). In the 1990s, the Indonesian government collaborated with the Hong Kong government on developing labour policies for IMDWs to work in Hong Kong. This resulted in a boom of Indonesian migration to Hong Kong (2007, 6). In 2013, more than one hundred and sixty thousand IMDWs lived in Hong Kong (Amnesty International, 2013).
Hong Kong's flourishing economy has resulted in a high demand for foreign maids (Ignacio and Mejia 2009, 12). Hsia (2009, 128) notes that to 'ensure that local workers would not complain when the migrant domestic workers began to arrive, the Hong Kong government made the hiring appear to be a "privilege"', suggesting that employers had to be wealthy enough to provide full accommodation and board for the migrant worker. At first, the maids were imported from neighbouring countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand. Between 2002 and 2007 there was a huge increase in the number of maids, with a very high demand for maids from the Philippines (Ignacio and Mejia 2009, 12). In general, Filipina maids are more proficient in English, older, better educated, and better informed of their legal rights than Indonesians (12); however, there is a growing preference for Indonesian maids by employers, possibly because Indonesian maids tend to be young, poorly educated, and lacking in knowledge of their legal rights (11). For many, it is only when they arrive in Hong Kong that they first learn of the strict constraints to their mobility while employed as domestic workers. Most Indonesians who arrive as migrant workers have low levels of education and many have not completed high school. Workers are from rural areas and regions where there is long-term poverty. The differences in educational level and status between Filipinas and Indonesians have also resulted in damaging stereotypes that circulate not only among employers but also between the two migrant groups.
Hsiao-Chuan Hsia explains that migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong are distinguished by the construction of 'stereotypes and prejudices against other nationalities' and asserts that
negative impressions of migrants of other nationalities are constructed in the context of capitalist globalization where developing countries compete with one another to expand labor export markets. To become more competitive in the global labor markets, labor-sending states often need to demonstrate their comparative advantages, that is, how workers from their countries are 'better' than others. (2009, 118–19)
Hsia further adds: 'For governments that are latecomers in formalizing labor export policies, their marketing niche is workers who are cheaper and more docile' (119). The Indonesian female migrant workers cater to this niche as they are poorly educated and regarded by Hong Kong employers as more culturally subservient than Filipina workers. Nicole Constable aptly states that female IMDWs are viewed as 'less savvy, more passive, and appropriately submissive' (2009, 149). In addition, recruiting agencies in Indonesia play a crucial role in 'actively engaging in creating conditions that could be seen as detrimental to its emigrants' (Hsia, 119). Paul (2011) claims that placement agencies gain an economic benefit in higher profit margins from certain racial groups. The agencies 'perpetuate a hierarchy through their construction and propagation of racialized stereotypes about migrant domestic workers' who, in turn, may become exploited (2011, 1073).
Hsia asserts that 'recruiting agencies not only encourage Indonesian migrants to be 'docile' but also themselves perpetuate 'negative images of migrants to other nationalities' (2009, 119). He cites the chairperson of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong (AKTI) who commented:
All Indonesians are told many times by agency: don't befriend Filipinos. Ordinary Indonesian migrants feel that it's OK to have lower wages because Filipinos speak English, they know how to fight, so only they deserve higher wages. (Hsia 2009, 119)
Excerpted from The Asia-Pacific in the Age of Transnational Mobility by Catherine Gomes. Copyright © 2016 Catherine Gomes. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of ContentsList of figures and tables; Acknowledgements; Notes on Contributors; Introduction; Section 1: Social Media, Mobility, Transience and Transnational Relationships; 1. Female Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong: A Case Study of Advocacy through Facebook and the Story of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih; 2. Media and Mobilities in Australia: A Case Study of Southeast Asian International Students’ Media Use for Well-Being; 3. Connecting and Re-Connecting with Vietnam: Migration, Vietnamese Overseas Communities and Social Media; 4. Liking It, Not Loving It: International Students in Singapore and Their Navigation of Everyday Life in Transience; Section 2: Social Media and Existing Multicultural Relationships in a Controlled Communication Environment.; 5. Is ‘Allah Just for Muslims’?: Religion, Indigenization and Boundaries in Malaysia; 6. Ethnic Minorities in the Multi-Ethnic Heritage in Melaka: Reconstructing Dutch Eurasian and Chitty Melaka Identites through Facebook; 7. Nostalgia and Memory: Remembering the Malayan Communist Revolution in the Online Age; 8. New and Traditional Media in Malaysia: Conflicting Choices for Seeking Useful and Trusted Information in Everyday Life; Index.
What People are Saying About This
‘This is a crucially important volume on transnational mobility that brings together excellent studies covering a geographical range from Australia to Vietnam. What sets the volume apart from others that have engaged with questions of transnationalism is that each study builds on exceptionally rich material while engaging with the bigger questions of migration and mobility.’
Michiel Baas, Research Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
‘An exemplary text that highlights how the Asia Pacific is driving the age of digital connectivity and how Asians are redefining their location, identity and belonging through the internet and social media.’ –Selvaraj Velayutham, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Macquarie University, Australia
‘A groundbreaking collection of essays that represent the latest and cutting-edge scholarship which critically examines the impact and implications of social media on defining and shaping the intersections and interactions of transnational migrations and other forms of border crossings with community belonging and identity constructions in the Asia Pacific today.’ –Jonathan Y. Tan, Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor of Catholic Studies, Department of Religious Studies, and affiliated faculty in the Ethnic Studies and Asian Studies Programs, Case Western Reserve University, USA
‘This volume breaks many new grounds, and is a brilliant example of cutting-edge interdisciplinary social research. It will be an invaluable resource for students and scholars of cultural studies, mobility research and Southeast Asian studies.’ –Peidong Yang, Research Fellow, Division of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
‘Gomes has brought together a range of scholars to investigate how people in the Asia-Pacific use social media to articulate their sense of identity and community in the midst of transience, cultural diversity and transnational mobility. This book fills a gap by connecting the everyday social media practices of people from the Asia-Pacific with their social and cultural contexts, at times in a controlled communication environment.’ –Supriya Singh, Professor, Sociology of Communications, RMIT University, Australia