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Raids Target Migrant Workers as WTO Summit Nears

by Handle and Puck Lo
On Saturday, December 10, three days before the 6th Ministerial World Trade Organization summit, Hong Kong police raided the offices of the Indonesian Migrant Worker's Union (IMWU). Although no one was injured or taken away, activists see the raid as part of a general build-up of state repression on activists.
Police entered the IMWU offices around 2pm and questioned those present about the numerous bamboo poles that artists were converting into flag poles to be used at an Indonesian cultural celebration scheduled for early Sunday morning. Authorities demanded passports and other identification from those in the office.

“It made us feel insecure,” Revitriyoso, an Indonesian artist and organizer with the Institute for Global Justice, declared. “Maybe tonight, or tomorrow, they will come again.”

Activists characterize the raid as indicative of the vulnerable status of migrants who are crucial to the functioning of the globalized economy. These workers have little or no rights recognized by the state or their employers.

“Clearly this police action is an intimidation tactic to make people think twice about going to the WTO protests. There’s a huge number of migrants expected at the anti-WTO rallies, and the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union have been organizing with Via Campesina and other high profile groups,” Pranjal Tiwari, a local organizer, expressed.

Just two days before the raids on IMWU, three Filipina activists were held in detention after they arrived at the Chek Lap Kok airport. For five hours, they were interrogated about their involvement with the upcoming WTO protest. The three women are leaders of a labor group, a women’s organization and an anti-war group. All three organizations plan to have a significant presence at the WTO protests, with one group bringing 300 of their members. Teodoro Casiño from Bayan Muna believes this was a clear case of harassment by the Hong Kong government for political reasons. Local media has already reported the existence of a “blacklist” of 300 protestors who will be denied entry to the country.

According to Revitriyoso, Indonesian workers represent the most oppressed and also the most organized migrant workforce in Hong Kong. The consulate has been encouraging the employers of migrant workers—who mainly work as low-wage domestic workers—to force migrants to work during the next three Sundays, due to the anti-WTO rallies that are scheduled on those days. Traditionally, Sundays are the only day of the week that domestic workers have free from work. Furthermore, Retriyoso explains, many bosses are using intimidation to keep workers from congregating at Victoria Park, a popular gathering spot for domestic workers.

Revitriyoso describes the ominous message sent to workers by their employers and the state: “If you have rallies, then watch out—if you want to go back home. The way I see it, the [Hong Kong] government and the WTO is not on the Indonesian people’s side. People need to be aware that migrant workers have the right to live and work under good conditions,” he concludes.

Two workers died last week in questionable circumstances, following falls from forty-plus story buildings. In April, another Indonesian domestic worker died after a similar fall. Her employer is suspected. Such deaths are the horrifying extremes of what can be routine abuse of migrant domestic workers by their employers. A survey of more than a thousand Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong also found that workers face abuse and poor conditions when obtaining jobs to leave Indonesia, as well as when they return. In Hong Kong, the most serious problem for migrant workers is underpayment. Sumiyatun, a migrant worker from Adipala explains, “For eight months, I never received any salary at all. After that, I began receiving only HKD 2,000 per month.” About 40 percent of migrants in the survey made similar amounts, far below Hong Kong’s minimum wage of HKD 3,270 for domestic work.

On Sunday morning the Indonesian community will hold a vigil for the two workers. Many Indonesian migrant organizations, as well as the Institute for Global Justice, will be holding the "opening cultural ceremony" to kick off the People's Action Week in opposition to the WTO ministerial conference. The thousands of bamboo flagpoles, in addition to an enormous puppet effigy of a multi-tentacled "WTO-saurus," will be key components in the Indonesian cultural "theatre of the oppressed" that Revitriyoso hopes will spread critical consciousness around issues of the effects of globalization on labor. Despite the raid yesterday as well as the increasing fear that migrants live and work under, IMWU will march today.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that the ILMU confronts is fear. Five thousand people were expected at last Sunday’s march, but because of the increasing police and employer pressure, only 3,000 showed. At 2am on Sunday morning at the ILMU office, banners, props and exhausted workers stretch out everywhere on the floor of the office. “Today,” Revitriyoso says with the vitality of conviction—or necessity—“will be the test case.”
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