Supporters of Yuli Riswati gather in Hong Kong on 6 December 2019. The sign reads "Thank you, Yuli, our brave friend." Faces have been blurred for safety. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Yuen/USP United Social Press.

More Hong Kongers must speak out for migrants’ rights

Hong Kong's treatment of Yuli Riswati is a call for all of us to do better.

The author is a student living in Hong Kong.

On December 6, I attended a rally organized by a support group for Indonesian journalist and migrant domestic worker Yuli Riswati, to protest her deportation and political suppression. The event was planned under very short notice—which may be why only a few hundred people showed up. But there are many reasons why Yuli’s story is a call for all of us to do better.

I first found out about Yuli a few months ago, when her story was told in an online newspaper. I admired her for holding down two exhausting jobs at the same time—no small feat.

The next time I heard her name was on the 28th day of her detention in the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Center (CIC). Before I could even understand why she was held for almost a month, news came out that she had already been deported back to Indonesia.

I was shocked. Why did we not find out sooner? Was it because the media didn’t think it was a story worth following, and therefore didn’t discover her detention until much later? To me, this was a symptom of a much larger problem. It’s not just Yuli that Hong Kongers didn’t hear about—there are thousands of migrant domestic workers in our city that we don’t notice, either

At the “Stand with Yuli” rally, Yuli called in from Indonesia. Her message was full of gratitude and grace. She thanked Hong Kongers for our support, and asked us to continue fighting for her siblings—the tens of thousands of migrant workers in Hong Kong. 

Yuli’s words really affected me. Despite getting locked up for telling the story of Hong Kongers who have done nothing but treat her people like second-class citizens, she thanked us. She thanked us and, as a Hong Konger, I felt so undeserving of her thanks.

Yuli did not go into the details of her time in immigration detention herself, but her friend, Mary, did. She told us how Yuli, on the first day she had visitors, was haggard and withdrawn, refusing to talk about her experience in the cell. With a lot of coaxing—Mary trying to hold her hand through the glass—Yuli described how she, a Muslim woman, was forced to disrobe in front of a male doctor; how she was given no access to hot water or medical attention, and was yelled at for playing with tissue paper out of boredom. She was given no indication of when she would be released. 

Other speakers at the rally described more cases of people trapped and humiliated in the CIC. They also told stories of other injustices that migrant workers have to put up with, in their day-to-day lives in Hong Kong society. 

The number of Hong Kong people who went on stage to speak on behalf of migrant workers gave me hope. But, Hong Kongers: this isn’t enough.

Migrant workers’ struggles in Hong Kong

We Hong Kongers expect migrant domestic workers to fly away from their homes to work for us. We make them care for our children while tearing them away from their own. We give them half a salary, reasoning that “it’s already a lot” for migrant workers. We force them to live in our homes but, even after years of servitude, refuse to give them citizenship

The system hurts them, keeps them in fear, and robs them of their freedoms. For the most part, Hong Kongers have stayed silent; we don’t even want to see how they are suffering. When they are in need, we give them five seconds of screen time before we forget about them entirely.

A speaker at the rally said, “We can tell the quality of a society by seeing how it treats its most vulnerable.”

My fellow Hong Kongers, if we are to judge our society by this standard, then we are failing. How can we be so indignant about police violence but feel nothing for how migrant domestic workers have been treated for decades? 

Our support for Yuli and migrant domestic workers should not be contingent on what they’ve done for us. We shouldn’t support them simply because they’ve helped us. We should support them because they are human beings—because they are Hong Kongers. Our support should not appear on weekends and go dormant on weekdays. It needs to be constant and unflinching.

How can we be so indignant about police violence but feel nothing for how migrant domestic workers have been treated for decades?

It is my fervent hope that this six-month-long movement isn’t just for Han Chinese Hong Kongers. I hope it lights a fire in us so that we try to fight injustice in every corner of our society—because the systems of power are hurting all of us, just in different ways. I know we can’t change immediately, and I know in this movement we have many other pressing concerns. But these things are related! Isn’t the police abuse of protesters comparable to the ill treatment and humiliation suffered by Yuli in immigration detention? 

We must connect to one another in our ongoing struggles. We cannot abandon people on the side of the road in our fight for human rights, justice, and freedom for all

Democracy for all

Near the end of the rally, two Indonesian women knelt down next to me. One pointed at my sign, which said Thank you, Yuli, our brave friend in Indonesian. “We really thank Hong Kongers for supporting Yuli,” she told me shyly, in Cantonese.

Her words struck a chord in me, and I started to cry. She looked taken aback for a moment before reaching out awkwardly to pat my arm. But she began to weep, too. We sat there for a few seconds, smiling at each other with tears rolling down our faces. Through her tears, she continued, “It’s encouraging that Hong Kongers care for us so much.”

I felt so conflicted. In that moment, sitting in an uncomfortably empty venue, it was hard for me to believe Hong Kongers genuinely cared about Yuli, except as a pawn to use in our movement.

I want more Hong Kong voices speaking out for migrant rights. I want more people defending the vulnerable in our society.

Then, the woman told me: “Democracy is so important. Without democracy, we cannot fight injustices like this. We need democracy. Hong Kongers, you cannot give up.”

She was right. Hong Kongers, we need to keep fighting for democracy: not only so we can live in freedom, but also for the freedom of everyone in our community. The political system oppresses us by failing to give us a voice, but we should not forget that the social and economic system is, and has always been, rigged against those on the margins. We must remember the already vulnerable and sidelined while we wage war against the injustices we face. We don’t have to be perfect, but we should not make excuses.

Next time, I want more Hong Kong voices speaking out for migrant rights. I want more people defending the vulnerable in our society. I want to be able to look Yuli in the eye and say, with full honesty and a clear conscience, “Thank you for your work! We will always have your back.”

How to help

Here are some actions we can take in support of Yuli and other migrant domestic workers, according to the organizers of the Stand with Yuli rally. These are just tiny steps, but if we are willing, we will eventually manage bigger strides!

  1. Sign this petition, and leave a personal message for Yuli.
  2. Talk to a migrant domestic worker! Strike up a conversation, maybe about Yuli’s situation, and use this chance to build connections.
  3. The International Domestic Workers Federation has a “My Fair Home” initiative. Click here for more details on how you can join in to help create fairer working environments for migrant domestic workers.

Hong Kongers: let’s fight for freedom, and stand with all.