PHOTOS – Dreamseekers: Photographer Reveals Helper’s Journeys from Indonesia to HK

dKd69CQ.jpg (300×300)It is rare we get an insight into the world which domestic maids have arrived from, or what they must go through in order to even make it to Hong Kong.

In her first major photography project, French photographer Gratiane de Moustier followed Indonesian girls from their training camp in Java to their final place of employment – the homes of Hong Kong families. She says, “They leave their homeland with high hopes and aspirations… But more often than not, the reality at their destination turns their dreams in to nightmares… I kept getting the feeling that these girls are not prepared for this life.”

She observed what she described as sadistic and bizarre abuse, with helpers becoming an outlet for explosions of suppressed anger and frustration. She says, “I’m illustrating what I consider a modern version of slavery and human trafficking”. The shots below were taken in late 2012 after almost a year of research and networking.

De Moustier graduated from the London College of Communication in 2009 with a master’s degree in photojournalism and documentary photography. Her work has been featured in the New York Times – you can visit her portfolio here.

Madiun, Indonesia

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Ringo Wong is on the phone with a training camp in East Java talking about his future visit to Indonesia. Wong has been in the employment agency industry since 1994. He manages about 1,000 Indonesian maids. He has partnerships with West Java and East Java training camps where he recruits his helpers. Due to Indonesian Government regulations, in order to work abroad one must go through an agency. This is a violation of the 1990 UN Convention that states that direct hiring is a right for all Migrant Workers.

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Ringo Wong sits in the train that links Surabaya to Madiun (East Java, Indonesia). He plans to visit a training camp in Madiun in order to recruit new maids. Once every two months he goes to Indonesia for such visits.

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Future maids are being introduced to agency recruiters from Hong Kong. If they are chosen and get a job, they will have to pay the agency a fixed fee of HK$13,500 (US$1742). Since they do not have that money upfront, they all sign a loan agreement with a financial institution in Indonesia. The money is then shared by the Training Camp, the Indonesian government, and the agency in Hong Kong.

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Reception desk of the Putra Indo Sejahtera Training Camp. Dozens of new girls hoping to be maids show up at that desk every week.

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Mr. Pikra and Mr. Nasry are certified recruiters. They earn IDR7,460,000 (US$770) for every girl they bring in. In Indonesia, all the potential maids are brought in by recruiters that gained their trust in their village. They bring in an average of 5 girls per month. Since the girl’s family has to give their permission, the recruiters pay the families IDR2,487,000 (US$260) which the girl will have to reimburse once she starts working. It is known as ‘pocket money’.

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Future helpers are examined by a government certified teacher before their departure. The government requires a 600 hour training program in foreign languages and household tasks. The future helpers must learn English for Singapore, Cantonese for Hong Kong, and Mandarin for Taiwan. They have about two months to do so. Most of the foreign language teachers are former maids whose language skills are often insufficient.

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The Putra Indo Sejahtera Training Camp can host 200 girls. There are hundreds of training camps for domestic helpers throughout the country.

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This woman is in charge of marketing for Hong Kong at the Training Camp. She prepares the information sheets of the students before their interview by Hong Kong recruiters.

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Winnie Leung, a Chinese recruiter, interviews potential maids for Hong Kong. Each maid has a number that is associated to her profile. They are called out by their number.

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Ringo Wong shoots the video of a young maid for the potential employers in front of a fake background of a kitchen. The future helper has the opportunity to show her language skills and talk about her overall abilities.

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A young future domestic helper poses for a video. Recruiters make them place their hands in this fashion to prove they still have their ten fingers. 

Toiletries of the 200 students of the Putra Indo Sejahtera Training Camp.

Two students practice how to use a wheelchair. Many will have to take care of elderly folk on a daily basis.

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Students practice baby care in the nursery.

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Students learn to use obsolete household appliances which often do not meet the Hong Kong standards.

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Students rotate in small groups to learn how to perform household tasks such as washing floors and windows.

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Bathroom and toilets used by the 200 students of the camp. In the past two years, 200 training camps have been closed by the Indonesian government for sanitary reasons. 400 remain.

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Evelyn Lam Ling, a recruiter from Hong Kong, interviews the girls in small groups. Her goal is to evaluate their language skills in English as well as in Cantonese. Most of these girls have past experience in Malaysia or Singapore. Nevertheless, they have to go through the training since the only way to work abroad is via the agency.

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One of the most important aspects of the interview is to check the tidiness of the future help. Lam Ling checks the hands of a student.

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 At the end of the Hong Kong recruiters’ visit, the selected maids from the Putra Indo Sejahtera Training Camp are made to sign a work contract in advance even though the future employer is not yet known. They basically sign a blank contract not knowing the type of work they will do, their salary, and the type of accommodation they will get. This will allow the agency to process the recruitment quickly. Competition is high for agencies in Hong Kong and employers expect to get their domestic helper as quickly as possible.

Evelyn Lam Ling is giving a last speech to all the 60 girls selected to work in Hong Kong. She reminds them about the basic expectations their employer will have. They must remain tidy, efficient, and forget about their pride.

Hong Kong

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The maids each receive their first passport. It is common in the corrupted Indonesian administration that the age of the girl is modified in order to meet with the minimum required age of 23 years old in Hong Kong. This passport is generally illegally held by the agency until the girl has finished paying her HK$13,500 fee.

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Indonesian staff of Kasa Maid Agency pick up new helpers from Madiun at the Hong Kong International Airport. 300,000 domestic helpers work in Hong Kong including 150,000 Indonesian maids. 

Wakit is 25 years old. She just arrived from Madiun this morning after more than 12 hours of travel. This is her first day in Hong Kong. She does not yet know for whom she is going to work. She says “I don’t know them, but they know me, they chose me out of a video and photos”. She speaks English because she has already worked for two years in Singapore but can hardly speak Cantonese  She hopes her employer will talk to her in English.

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Window of Kasa Maid Agency in the area of Tsuen Wan. This building alone contains 31 agencies.

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 The girls, upon arrival, are taken to the boarding house of the agency. This is one of the requirement made by the Indonesian consulate. An agency must have a suitable boarding house for the first nights of the maids, or in case problems arise with the employer. There are no beds, the girls will have to sleep on the floor.

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Wikit and Winarti must wait at the Immigration Center in Hong Kong in order to receive a local ID. Domestic migrant workers have been placed under specific legal rules and policies that are set by the Immigration and Labor Departments regarding conditions of stay, rights of residence, and minimum rate of pay (HK$$4,010). They must go back home every two years, they cannot drive a car in Hong Kong (since 2003 ), and are not allowed to live outside their employer’s house.

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 The Indonesian consulate organises a welcoming package for the newly arrived maids. They are reminded what is expected from them as domestic helpers, with an emphasis on their attitude, as well as their rights. They are entitled to a minimum wage as well as one day off per week. About 1000 Indonesian girls arrive every month in Hong Kong. Many agencies do not send the girls to the consulate at their arrival as the priority is to hand the domestic helper to the employer as quickly as possible.

Final Destination

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Aulia, 32 years old, comes from Jakarta in Indonesia. She is has been working for the same family for 6 years in the neighborhood of Jordan. She takes care of two kids: Chloe, 8 years-old and Stuart, 5 years-old.

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 This middle class Chinese family lives in a 600 sq feet apartment. Aulia, the domestic helper shares their daily life. Since the husband employer works long hours, Aulia’s presence is the only reason the wife can afford to have a job and bring in an additional salary.

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Aulia is cooking diner for the family under the supervision of Selina, her employer.

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Aulia has been taking care of Stuart since he was born. Stuart is now 6 years old and calls her ‘Auntie’. Aulia sleeps in the same room as him, on the top bunk.

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Aulia has a popular blog about Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong. She is showing her work to her employer for the first time. Since she works on her blog on her days off, Selina was not aware of her second life. Aulia carries the secret ambition of one day being a journalist. She plans to go back to Indonesia permanently.

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Enny, 33, shows a picture of her 14 year old daughter she sees once a year since she started working 7 years ago. Her husband died many years ago, and her daughter lives with her parents in Indonesia.

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Enny has been working for two years with this elderly family. She speaks perfect Cantonese since she previously worked for 5 years in Hong Kong. She is taking her employers to their favorite Dim Sum restaurant, a daily ritual.

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A family portrait. Working with the elderly can be challenging  Enny says she had trouble coping with the terribly slow routine she had to go through daily.

The Day of Rest

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On Sundays thousands of Indonesian girls gather in public parks to take advantage of their only day off. Maids in Hong Kong are all entitled to 1 day off per week. Many employers offer HK$100 (US$12,9) to their maids for them to give up their day off.

The Kasa Maid agency allows their maids to use their boarding house on Sundays instead of spending the day outside. They can rest, watch TV, and cook Indonesian food. Very few agencies do this.

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On Sundays, their only day off, Indonesian migrants flood the streets of Hong-Kong. Foreign migrant workers have made a major contribution to Hong Kong in terms of its economic growth. Migrants have long performed vital tasks such as providing personalised child and elder-care services to local wage earners. These valuable services have allowed hundreds of thousands of local families the chance to earn two incomes instead of one.

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Many maids spend their Sundays in Fast Food restaurants. Though some stick to the traditional Muslim outfit, many radically change their style. Living abroad is also an opportunity for some to publicly expose their sexuality.

Risk of Abuse

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Wakit is meeting her employer for the first time at the Kasa Maid Agency. She discovers that she will be in fact taken to mainland China to work for the daughter of the Chinese woman pictured. She will have nothing to do except for some general cleaning. No kids or elderly people to take care of. No cooking. No friends.

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Lis, 24 years old comes from East Java in Indonesia. She arrived in Hong Kong on January 6, 2012 to work as a domestic helper. In August 2012 her employer falsely accused her of stealing money and clothes. Her employer forced her to sign a paper and shoot a video where Lis acknowledged the theft and then took her to the police. Lis is now in prison.

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Lis describes a typical day with striking details to bring context to her case.

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Hong Kong. Fatika 22, arrived in Hong Kong in December 2012. Two days into her contract she was physically abused by her employer and ran away. Thanks to the help of another Indonesian girl, she went to the police who called an ambulance and did a medical report.

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A young newly arrived helper fills out a complaint in the Labour Department of Hong Kong after being physically abused by her employer, two days into her contract. Regardless of their destination (Asia or Saudi Arabia), maids are exposed to potential violations of their human rights.

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Eni is 27, she comes from Central Java in Indonesia  Her employer has payed only half of her salary over the past 6 months. After many months, she won her case against her employer. She returned to Indonesia on the 26th of December 2012.

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Eni, unlike most abused maids, had meticulously taken notes, recorded, and saved documents, proving her non-payment. She is one of the few to have such a strong case against her female employer.

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Yayu 26, from Indonesia, received chemical products in her eyes when her impatient employer pushed her around while she was washing the windows.

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Yayu is filing a complaint against her employer. She will not be allowed to work for the whole duration of her case.

Iva, 22, comes from East Java in Indonesia. She worked for a Chinese family with three kids. She worked for three months without receiving any pay. Her Agency tried to convince her not to say anything in order to keep a good relationship with the employers. She ran away and found refuge at Bethune House. She has been waiting for her case to go to trial for 2 months.