Human rights | Modern day slavery ‘very much alive’

Gabriel McKail

A documentary concerning a horrific story of abuse faced by an Indonesian domestic worker for eight months was screened on Sunday at the University of Macau (UM).

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s story, which first appeared in the global media spotlight in 2014, was presented to Indonesian migrant workers in a bid encourage the community to stand up for their rights and dignity.

The 26-year-old was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2014.

The film “Erwiana: Justice For All” was made by American-Mexican documentary filmmaker Gabriel McKail who is currently based in Hong Kong.

The film has been screened in Jakarta and Hong Kong and made its debut in Macau on Sunday.

McKail, who was present at the event, recalled that he was compelled to produce a documentary film after witnessing instances of  domestic workers being mistreated – even in public.

“I just want people to know that these issues still exist in the migrant community,” the independent producer told the press.

McKail, along with members of Indonesian migrant groups in Hong Kong, visited Erwiana in her hometown in Indonesia to document the process of the case that was made against her employer, while migrant groups cooperated with Indonesian authorities.

Erwiana speaks with the audience through video-chat

Erwiana arrived in Hong Kong in 2013 as a young woman intending to save money for her education.

The film not only highlights what Erwiana experienced but also tackles issues that domestic helpers, who were featured in the film, face in their everyday lives.

The exploitation includes taking passports from workers, forcing workers to sleep in the kitchen or toilets without mattresses and only feeding employees meager amounts – as little as one to two pieces of bread per meal.

The 90-minute documentary also presents disturbing graphic images of Erwiana’s injuries.

Forcing a metal tube o a vacuum cleaner inside her mouth, punching her front teeth, which caused a fracture and splashing cold water on her naked body in front of an electric fan during winter were only a few examples of the maltreatment Erwiana experienced at the hands of her Hong Kong employer.

Meanwhile, McKail, who is also a photo-journalist, described how domestic workers in Hong Kong are still experiencing modern day slavery, despite Erwiana’s story making headlines across the region’s media outlets.

He stated that fear and lack of information are two of the main factors preventing workers from complaining about their employers.

“I think that they are afraid of losing their jobs because a lot of them have kids they have to put to school, or they’re supporting a family,” he explained.

“When they stand up and say something against their employer, their employer can easily terminate them,” McKail added.

The independent producer also revealed that not only do employers mistreat domestic workers, but so do immigration authorities.

“They have every right to be afraid because I’ve been to the immigration department and they don’t treat them correctly. […] It’s fear of a lot of things,” he said.

The director noted that he is still hearing stories of his Filipino friends who are not getting paid for two to three months, or are being fed little.

“It’s like human trafficking, so yes, modern day slavery is very much alive.”

McKail noted that he also assists such workers to file cases against abusive employers, yet he revealed that it is discouraged by police authorities.

“I’ve seen government authorities act in a way that is shocking to me. But it’s at the point that it just happens every day,” McKail lamented.

“I’ve seen it from police officials, from government officials, everything. And when I try to tell this to employers, they’d say that’s not true or the media fakes it.”

Meanwhile, Brian Hall, associate professor of psychology at UM, stressed that the research group he is currently leading, Population Research Initiative for Domestic Employees (PRIDE), is conducting a comprehensive assessment for migrant workers in Macau.

PRIDE is working with Indonesian, Filipino and Vietnamese populations to understand the critical health issues faced by these communities.

He hoped that the group would potentially find ways to improve population health through the data they are collecting.

PRIDE is currently trying to collect data from some 400 and 2,000 Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers respectively.

Co-organized by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union Macau and UM’s PRIDE, the film screening event showcased performances from the Indonesian community, updates regarding the region’s labor law and a short discussion with Erwiana through Skype.

Categories Macau