Today I experienced the hard part of my job.
I got a call while I was in a meeting about a client that I had been helping. Her agency had possession of her passport and was refusing to return it. Its all-too common for agencies, and sometimes even employers, to confiscate the migrant worker’s passport, employment contract and bank book “for safe keeping.” When an agency takes these worker’s documents, it often means they are trying to force the individual into an unnecessary loan, or that they already have a loan to pay for the agency fees (that are illegal by Hong Kong standards, but since they are technically incurred in the country of origin, not much is done about it). When it is an employer that takes the documents, it is because they are trying to keep their employee from running away. All domestic helpers are required by Hong Kong law to live in the residence of their employer, which as you can imagine, lends itself to possibilities of abuse and maltreatment without supervision or refuge. There is no limit to work days in Hong Kong (not just for migrant workers, but for all workers), so its not uncommon for a domestic helper to say that they work 16-18 hours a day, while being on call 24hours a day. Even in my short 8 months here, I have already lost count of the letters I have written to the Indonesian Consulate, asking for their help in retrieving passports from agencies and employers. But, we are “encouraged” to seek the Consulate help for retrieval of documents only when the migrant worker has terminated or has been terminated from the contract. “Eli” is still employed, so I was asked to accompany her to the agency, hoping that a fresh face would help the situation. Eli had already been down the the agency twice to try and retrieve her documents with no success.
When we arrived at the agency, we were told by the middle aged Indonesian woman with fancy nails and streaked hair to wait on a sagging couch covered with a white sheet. A Chinese woman sat behind a desk, speaking in Cantonese with what appeared to be a potential employer inquiring about the hiring process. Two young Indonesian girls sat on the couch on the opposite side of the room, near the coffee maker. About 10 minutes later, the head agent came in the room. He hardly even glanced at Eli, and act as though he didn’t even see me. Eli told him, in Indonesian, that she wanted to get her passport and bank book back. Without looking at her, he hastily shoved a piece of paper onto his desk and asked her, in Indonesian, to write a letter saying that she would pay her loan. He had not even asked her name, and while there is the possibility that he recognized her from her two previous visits, there was no question in his voice, it was a demand. Eli translated what he had asked, and I asked her if she had a loan. She told me that she had been in Hong Kong for three years and had no debt – that she had paid for everything upfront before she left Indonesia. So I told her to absolutely not sign anything. Eli turned to the agent and shook her head, told him that she wouldn’t sign anything. This made the agent frustrated, and he ignored her, flinging things around his desk to show how he felt about her refusal. Eli asked again for her passport, and again he told her that first she had to sign saying that she would pay a loan. She looked to me for help, and so I spoke up, in English, with all the respect demanded of an outsider.
“Sir, my friend her just wants her passport. Do you think she could get that, and then worry about sorting out any loans with the loan company?” The agent glared at me.
“This is not you! You are not her! You are not me! What are you doing here! Why are you asking this! I did not ask you to be here!!” I could feel the hatred seething through his clenched teeth. The potential employer gathered her purse to leave, glancing with concern in my direction. Confusion in her eyes she quickly slipped past the angry agent.
“Sir, I am not trying to cause any problems. But you have her passport, and that is illegal. All we want is to get…”
“Out!!! You, I don’t know you! I don’t trust you!! Get out of my office!! You have no right to be talking to me!!!!” The rest of his tangent was in Indonesian, so I have no idea the hateful words he was spewing at me. What I did not miss however, was the fact that he was no more than 4 inches from my face, and his voice was not just raised, he was screaming. For what felt like hours, but in reality was probably only two or three minutes, he screamed in three different languages. First in my face, then he moved over to Eli and began screaming at her things that I did not understand, and she didn’t translate for me. I kept trying to interject, to assure him that we wanted no trouble, that we only wanted what was legally Eli’s. Every time I opened my mouth, he moved back over to me to scream some more. My heart was racing, all the blood had rushed to my face, I was trying to keep myself from shaking. I wanted to appear calm and level-headed. At this point the Chinese woman behind the desk spoke up, I thought to help calm down the angry agent. Instead, SHE started yelling at me as well.
“You must leave now!! If you do not leave, we will call the police! We do not trust you! You have no right to be here! Get out of our office now!!” While she was yelling, the Indonesian man began pacing around the room, yelling to be heard over the woman’s rising voice. The two young girls on the couch were absolutely ashen, afraid. The receptionist with the fancy nails didn’t even look fazed. Eli reached in her pocket to pull out her phone. The agent quickly crossed the room and lunged at Eli, attempting to force the phone from her hand while screaming, “You cannot call anyone! No phones!!” But before he could reach her I jumped in between them, pulling the soccer mom arm out, keeping her behind me, and his malicious face in front of me.
He marched the door and screamed for me to get out immediately. I told them I was not leaving without Eli.
“Fine! Take her! We don’t want her!! You get nothing from us!! Leave now!!” I told them that I was not leaving without Eli, and Eli was not leaving without her passport. The man walked towards us again. I looked at Eli and she nodded towards the door. There was no sense staying where we weren’t welcome. We stepped right outside of the door frame. They left the door open. With shaking hands, I asked Eli for her phone and called 999 (the Hong Kong version of 911). With the angry agent in my sights, I explained to the police over the phone what had just happened and asked for their assistance. We were told to wait downstairs for them.
About ten minutes later, we were accompanying two very calm officers back up to the 20th floor. The man was slouching smugly in his chair, but as soon as he saw the officers behind Eli and I, he jumped up to usher the officers in the office. I was in between the two of them, but the man pushed me without touching out of the office and slammed the door in my face, barely missing my nose. For the next 20 minutes I listened through the locked door and thin walls as there was more yelling. I heard a phone ringing over speaker phone, a mix of Cantonese and Indonesia, no English.
Eli later told me that the agent told the officers, in Cantonese, that her mother had called the agency that morning, crying, worried about Eli, asking the agency to look after her, to take care of her. Luckily, Eli’s employer of three years is Chinese, and Eli is fairly fluent in Cantonese. She was able call the man’s lie for what it was – a deception in fear and guilt. Eli told me that her mother had never called the agency, but has been encouraging her all along to stand up for herself against this evil agency.
At the end of the day, Eli emerged with her passport and employment contract. The agent claimed they never had possession of her bankbook and ATM card (though Eli’s employer can witness to the fact that they took it). I helped Eli go to the bank to cancel her account, and she treated me to McDonald’s.
She kept saying, “I am so sorry you were yelled at.” I kept telling her I was so sorry SHE was yelled at.
Eli also kept saying, “Today is my lucky day. It really is. Its my lucky lucky day. I have my passport, and you helped. Without you, I would not have been allowed to leave that office with it. It is my lucky day. Thank you.”
This is not an exception to the norm, unless you account for the fact that Eli was so brave, and refused to give in to the fear that man was trying to shove in our faces. Sadly, I meet women every day who have been abused by their agencies in this way. They are molded into puppets through fear and intimidation. They are forced to pay 7x times the normal Hong Kong rate in agency fees, have unnecessary loans forced upon them, are given promises of jobs in exchange for currency, have their passports and bankbooks and other personal documents confiscated. While I am still trying to calm myself down from today’s ordeal, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be 19, coming from an abusive employer, sitting on that sagging couch with an angry agent who won’t offer the help that’s offered in their fliers. No wonder our shelter is always over capacity. No wonder our office took in almost 1,000 cases last year alone. While there are still conniving hate-filled people like that agent in positions of power over the vulnerable migrants, injustice will continue to occur in Hong Kong. The women here are taking a stand against this, have been for years. And today, I was proud, even through my shaking, to be standing with them.