News / Asia

Indonesian Migrant Workers at Mercy of Loan Sharks

Indonesian migrant workers protest outside the Consulate General Indonesia in Hong KongCheck on May 6, 2007.
Indonesian migrant workers protest outside the Consulate General Indonesia in Hong KongCheck on May 6, 2007.
Sara Schonhardt
Domestic workers from Indonesia have long battled abuse and exploitation.

In Hong Kong, the government has responded with protective labor measures mandating one day off a week and a minimum wage. But even there, migrant workers are increasingly falling prey to predatory moneylenders who can end up taking most of their salaries.
 
Every Sunday, Hong Kong’s Victoria Park fills with thousands of domestic workers, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines. During their one day off a week, they gather for picnics, make handicrafts and share stories.
 
Anni Hamidah, a helper from Surabaya, arrived in Hong Kong in 2010 expecting to work for one family but ended up working for three. Anni cared for seven people and a baby.  She said although the job was not as advertised, she would have been terminated if she complained to her agency.

Agency loans

Although Anni’s story is not unusual, advocacy groups say the most common problem for overseas domestic workers is a predatory lending system that puts women in debt, even before they start working. Before leaving Indonesia, the women sign contracts with employment agencies that charge for training and placement. A loan agreement is almost always part of the contract, said Holly Allan, who manages the group Helpers for Domestic Helpers.
 
“Because most them, they don’t have the cash to pay, so 99 percent of them are referred to loan companies or they’re just made to sign loan agreements in the office of the agency," said Allan. "It’s the agency that facilitates everything and they just sign and sign without knowing what they’re signing.”

With monthly minimum wages set at less than $520, that leaves women with as little as $50 a month for food and living expenses. Out of fear, these women usually sign a receipt that says they have received their full salary.

Given such intimidation, it’s hard to provide evidence of these practices, especially when some of the expenses are legitimate.

Indonesia allows agencies to charge expenses and receive commissions for teaching prospective domestic workers how to clean, cook and speak Cantonese before they leave for Hong Kong.
 
The government recently capped those fees at around $1,900. The law also says agencies can only charge commissions of 10 percent of one month’s salary.

Vicious cycle
 
But moneylenders can and do charge interest rates as high as 60 percent on the loans women take out to pay back their debts. Allan said the typical loan for those coming from Indonesia is $2,700. Allan faults moneylenders for allowing employment agencies to get around laws meant to protect domestic workers.

The practice is so profitable employment agencies try to perpetuate their business by getting workers terminated after they’ve paid off their loans, Allan said.
 
“It’s just a vicious cycle, and we’ve had clients who work in Hong Kong for three years without making any money because each time she has paid the loan, she gets terminated and transferred to another employer and she pays again and then transferred to another, so they’re just fleecing them."
 
Marsini, who comes from East Java and works for a local family in Wanchai, said sometimes the agents pressure employers to seek new help, or employers do not pay the helpers their full salaries, knowing they have little recourse.
 
She said if she complains to her agency, she will be fired and will have to look for another employer. That means a whole new set of agency fees, said Marsini.

Despite a growing number of complaints about overcharging by employment agencies, few firms have been sanctioned. A recent report by Bloomberg news noted that of more than 80 complaints registered with Hong Kong’s Labor Department since 2011, only two employment agencies have been found in violation of the law.

Hong Kong is generally seen as a better country for domestic workers than Malaysia or Saudi Arabia because of laws meant to protect women. But Allan saod agencies know how to circumvent the law and there is no political will on the part of the Hong Kong government and the home country government to really crack down on them.
 
Michael Tene, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta, said the government continuously monitors the way these agencies behave.
 
“Certainly, if we have information about behavior which is contrary to the spirit as well as the letter of their function, then certainly we will take the necessary measures to rectify that," he said.

Human trafficking?

Anni, the worker from Surabaya, said what is happening to the women in Hong Kong is like human trafficking. They work without pay and their employers hold their passports. That said, women continue to arrive drawn by the possibility of a better income.
 
Her eyes wet with fresh tears, Anni said if there were jobs in Indonesia, she would not be here.

You May Like

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs