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Interview: Erwiana Sulistyaningsih

By Anna Cummins

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih came to Hong Kong from Indonesia, aged 21, after friends told her that the city was 'heaven' for domestic helpers. But she was placed in the house of Law Wan-tung, who swiftly began a reign of abuse – refusing to pay her or grant her holidays, and also physically attacking her.

Erwiana's story drew global horror after she returned to Indonesia and photos of her – bruised, battered and malnourished – emerged. After last year's high-profile court case, Law Wan-tung has been found guilty of 18 counts of abuse and will be sentenced later this month. Erwiana now finds herself in an unusual position. She's a victim, trying to move on emotionally from her abuse, but thanks to the media attention she's been getting, she's also inadvertently become a spokesperson for the 320,000 helpers in the city. We sit down with the 24-year-old and talk with her about her feelings on her new platform, her plans for the future and what can be done to end the cycle of abuse that many helpers face daily.

Hi Erwiana. Congratulations on the verdict. How do you feel now the case is over? 
I am very happy. It's been a long year.

There were 20 charges of abuse against your ex-employer Law Wan-tung – 18 of those applied to you, but two of the charges related to her abusing previous helpers, to which she was found not guilty. What do you think about that? 
I feel disappointed and sad. As a helper, you are not respected and recognised. Even when we tell our story, many still don't believe it. I'm not even just talking about [Law Wan-tung's former helper] Nurhasanah – there are many other cases.

A recent court case involving another helper, Anis Andriyai, saw her accused of lying about her employer cutting her finger with a knife. The employer has been found not guilty. How have you reacted to this case? 
As a domestic helper, your story is not recognised. We are not empowered. It's the employer who has the money and us who needs the job. So we are forced into this position. It's not always easy for us to talk about what happens to us in our employer's home because we are trained to be obedient and we are scared to lose our job. I don't believe that Anis was lying. Helpers – not only in Hong Kong but around the world – are made to stay within a family. Anything can happen to them. But no one knows what. 

Now your case has been front-page news, are you being recognised often? How does it make you feel?
Yes, many people recognise me on the street. Popularity is not important to me, if the conditions of domestic helpers are not changing – there are still so many cases [of abuse]. I am not a celebrity. I am a victim.

There have been several high-profile abuse cases involving Indonesian helpers recently. Do you think there is any specific reason for this? Perhaps the language barrier is making life difficult for them to seek help?
That kind of problem is caused by the Indonesian government. They pass the responsibility of training to the agency. They don't provide good training – their concern is only about profit. And we are the ones who need the job.

Where did you first turn for help when you realised how bad things had become? 
Within the first five weeks I escaped to the lobby downstairs and used the security guard's phone. I called the agency in Hong Kong asking to change employer. They told me it was too hard to do. 

In your opinion, what is the larger problem for helpers – the live-in rule or unscrupulous agencies? 

It's both. The live-in rule means there is no way to talk about your problems. It enforces a practice of slavery. And, also, there are no maximum working hours! It should be eight hours, not 24. No one will ever know what happens to a helper inside the home. Even if the employer does have a camera, the privacy ordinance means they don't have to show it to anyone – even in court. Law Wan-tung had cameras in the house but the footage was never used in my case. She said the cameras were not working. And that makes things very difficult. I believe others have had the same experience as me.

Did you ever want to become a domestic worker?
No, I never wanted to be a migrant worker but there was no choice. I was working as a waitress but the pay I received in Indonesia was not sufficient. I just had no choice. I was 21 years old when I came to Hong Kong. 

Was Hong Kong your first choice of location?

I was looking forward to coming to Hong Kong because many people said it's a heaven for migrant workers, that there are good laws. A lot of my schoolmates were working here. I wouldn't say they were exactly happy, but they managed. They worked hard.

So how exactly did you get placed in the job with Law Wan-tung?
I went through an agency in Indonesia. They told me to be obedient and then they cut my hair. I didn't like that, but I needed a job. Eight months later I did get a job, but that one fell through, and then after that I was placed with Law Wan-tung.

What was your first impression of her? 
My first impression was that she didn't smile much to me, although she did smile to her children. On my first evening in Hong Kong she asked me to work right away. She gave me a schedule and it said exactly what I should clean and for how long. It would say things like 'clean the television for five minutes' – not any more, not any less. Everything needed to be cleaned, all the small items. My sleeping hours were in the afternoon, I had to clean through the night. She was very bitchy, she was always complaining. Once I was cleaning the air conditioner and she pulled me down from the ladder. She made me sleep on the floor, and I got about four hours of sleep per night. I felt very uncomfortable.

Why was it only Law Wan-tung who was on trial? Did other members of the family hurt you?
No, it was only her who hurt me. Although it was disheartening to see that she taught her children to lie [to police]. 

Do you feel any pressure to be a spokesperson for these abused workers now that you have this platform?

I am not a spokesperson. I don't feel pressure. I have all my painful experience, so I know what they are going through. I hope that I can make more people speak out about their bad experiences. I hope they will be more united and fight together to change their treatment, so that it's no longer like slavery.

And do you think you could effect change in Indonesia, too? 

The Indonesian government continues to act the same, but they are being pressured. I really hope there will be no more cases like mine. They really need to take responsibility and not just be after profit. They exploit those of us who are poor. 

And how have you found the emotional impact of the trial and all the attention? 
Before, it was difficult. But now I know how to move on with my life, I can help my fellow migrant workers and I hope they can be recognised as equal human beings. I hope the government will open their minds and have more conscience.

I am really thankful to Justice for ErwianaMission for Migrant Workers andNetwork of Indonesian Migrant Workers for their continued support. The authorities were willing to listen to my case because of all the pressure. Before the attention, they had filed my case into 'miscellaneous' – afterwards, it became a 'priority' case. However, there are others who cannot access the same legal help. Minor cases aren't even considered.

Were you ever worried you would lose the case?
I was actually worried I might lose the case. The road to justice was very heavy. For someone like me, who knew nothing, to go to court and talk about something I wanted to forget was heavy. But I was determined to fight for justice. 

What are your feelings toward Law Wan-tung now that she has been found guilty?
I can only hope she is sorry. She was smiling in the court, she was charming. It was only a few days before the end of the trial that she stopped looking happy.

Thank you so much for your time, Erwiana. So now this case has finally come to a close, what are your plans now? 

I want to go home and continue my studies in economics. I am lucky; I got a scholarship from a private university. I am not going to stay in Hong Kong, I am not going to work as a domestic worker. I will still help [other migrant workers], and still do advocacy.

Interview by Anna Cummins.

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