Friday, September 3, 2010

The end is never the end...

Last summer, I think I was blessed with almost everything.

Funding from the Women and Public Policy Program enabled me to pursue my project and travel abroad without much worry, including a new technical device, that is the venerable 'MacBook'; my previous laptop which I have been using for more than five years were almost run down. Joining a band of wonderful sisters (and brothers, of course) of fellow students and staffs was a tremendous support and encouragement as well.

Initially, I began my project with the goal of locating best practices of economically empowering migrant women in Asia. I was thinking of specific models from the non-profit world, because I thought government policies or the international framework is still largely insufficient in targeting these populations, especially in Asia where migrant groups are becoming increasingly visible at unprecedented patterns.

But then, my interests took a little turn while I was in Hong Kong. Early on, I mentioned that I got both research and advocacy parts through my stay in Hong Kong.

Moreover, deep exposure into the issue of migrant domestic workers and the upcoming ILO Convention next year, made me focus on this specific group of migrant women, rather than the general population, and consider variables such as labor, development, and government policies.
Especially, I began to focus more on how these women interact with each other, and organize themselves to advocate for their rights. Unions or organizations, or social capital in a more broader term, can be quite a traditional approach rather than innovative, but there is no doubt that this type of participation and mobilization of workers is essential in bringing democracy.

I am planning to turn my summer project into a PAE, especially focusing on how migrant domestic workers' movements have influence on the campaigning efforts for the ILO Convention. Client remains to be contacted... but it'd be perfect if I can get the ILO interested!
In the long term, I am hoping to find ways to work on this issue on a more sustainable basis. That may include finding a job on this issue after graduation, and/or possibly pursuing a PhD later on... maybe...
So, as always, the end is the beginning, though insecure and unclear it maybe at present, I am excited that it also means that almost everything can and will be done!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Law and policy for all

In many ways, migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong tend to enjoy better protection than those in other countries. They are entitled to one day of paid leave per week, which sounds like a radical proposition in Singapore. They enjoy some sort of maternity protection, i.e. employers cannot fire you for being pregnant, which is unthinkable in most Middle Eastern countries. They can form labor unions that are totally legally recognized, in contrast to many developed countries where unions of migrant workers are often oppressed. In fact, it is often said that Hong Kong's policies on foreign domestic workers influenced many advocates around the world, and especially directly affected the recent notable event that took place in NY; the passage of Bill of Rights for domestic workers in NY.

However, as any policies, Hong Kong's policy toward migrant domestic workers is not perfect. From my analysis of the current policy framework, interviews with workers, and conversations with activists, I learned that there are many loopholes in Hong Kong's policy that undermine the wellbeing and empowerment of these women, numbering more than 23,0000.

The most striking area is the issue of payment. I have posted some pictures of protests against the exclusion of foreign domestic workers under the newly proposed - and passed last July - Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW) Law. Hong Kong government's position is that domestic workers already have enough protection under the Minimum Allowable Wage (MAW) scheme.
At a first glance, MAW seems to favor Hong Kong's domestic workers. It sets the ceiling for minimum payment workers are entitled to, which is about HKD 3580, and serves as a platform for a worker to file a complaint against employer or employment agency if she receives under-payment. However it is not a law but a "stand-alone" policy, not grounded in protecting labor rights but intention to regulate a broader immigration flow.

SMW law will be different, because it is applied to all workers across sectors and occupations, for the first time. I do understand, and sometimes can sympathize a little with the government or employer side, on concerns about economic and social repercussions of expanding the coverage of the minimum wage bill.
However, to leave out a certain group of workers, just because they are not "us", seems nothing more than a discrimination and a gross violation of human rights.
Especially when these workers are mostly women, of lower class, from developing countries, doing informal care work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Power of togetherness (part2)

I realized that my previous post unintentionally mocked the style of Christopher Nolan's acclaimed film 'Inception', in a way, that it ended with an open-ended question.

So I decided to ponder further on that big question, something that I did not expect in the beginning that I will be thinking about.
How to assess the effects of social capital on women migrants' empowerment?

Intuitively speaking, stronger social capital is most likely to have positive correlation (not causation, yet!) with women's empowerment, but I think the question and expected conclusion should be more sophisticately constructed, if it is to be meaningful in theory and practice.

I have seen how Hong Kong's migrant domestic workers participating in unions or different organizations speak positively of their experiences, especially in dealing with various work-related problems such as conflicts with employers or employment agencies. Some migrant workers who suffered months and years of underpayment or employers' abuses have sought redress through unions' help. Being part of unions or organizations also give some kind of psychological support and strength to vulnerable migrants in a strangeland.

Of course there are many non-profit organizations that give direct assistance to abused migrant workers, i.e. providing food, shelter, rescue or legal advices.
But while migrants workers who knock on the doors of these organizations are more close to 'recipients' of social services, workers who engage in union activities are much more like 'agents' representing themselves. In this sense, being a union member itself may imply that the individual is "empowered", considering unfavorable external environment surrounding her. Not withstanding the fact that she has to dedicate their only day-off to union activities, many employers discourage, if not prohibit, their workers from participating in unions, although unions are legally allowed in Hong Kong.

I assume there would be some literature, at least on the topic of organizations and empowerment, although how you may define the concept of empowerment will be the key point of difference here.
For my research subjects, migrant domestic workers, I think you can break down their level of (economic) empowerment into several variables; actual wages received, actual entitlement of rights/benefits such as restday and health insurance, savings/remittances, preparation for return, etc. I could then do a comparative study between women in unions/organizations and those who are not in any of them.

On a weekday, (mostly) Filipina shop and hang out at the World Wide House, a focal point of Filipina small businesses, located in Central. 

FADWU and CMR members protest against the exclusion of foreign domestic workers under the Statutory Minimum Wage Law on July 14, 2010.

Yet, measuring such intangible thing as the power of organization seems challenging.
That is why I decided to first focus on a case study method, or in other words, collecting narratives. Luckily, in addition to the host organization AMC, I have encountered many other organizations in Hong Kong.
Two to three of them grab my attention. One is obviously domestic workers union. It (or they, since several unions exist) is leading the struggle against the exclusion of migrant domestic workers under the statutory minimum wage bill just passed last month. Second is an entrepreneur initiative called Yogya, run by Indonesian migrant women. Looking forward to discuss them in detail in the following post.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Power of togetherness

One thing that amazed me the most during my interaction with migrant women here in Hong Kong is the role and the power of organizing.

We know that the right to organize is the basic right of all workers. Much of the history of modern labor movement revolves around the struggle for the recognition of labor unions.

The right to unionize has also been the important achievement for migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong. Since the establishment of the first union, Asian Domestic Workers Union (ADWU) in 1989, the unionization of migrant workers is legally protected under the Hong Kong law.

Now there are quite a few number of unions representing migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong; ODWU, FDWU, IMWU, UNDW are some of the examples. It took me some time to learn these acronyms and differentiate one from the other – and frankly, I still get some mixed!
These unions have gained the official membership in Hong Kong’s general trade union as well.

There are also numerous non-union type of organizations of domestic workers. Although they are not members of trade unions, some of them are very active in demonstrations, such as the recent protests against the exclusion of domestic workers from the statutory minimum wage law.

My question is, how would you assess the actual effects of being in unions or organizations on women’s empowerment.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Empathy, Advocacy, Solidarity

The best thing about my internship is that I am getting an array of diverse exposure to issues of my interest, and are actually seeing progress on them every single day. 
How, exactly? 
Because my tasks as an intern exhibit a perfect combination of "research" and "advocacy".  

AMC, the host organization is conducting a follow-up research on the situation of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Hong Kong. Research is consisted of two parts; first, a quantitative research through distributing questionnaires to FDW, and second, a qualitative research through conducting focused group discussions. 
My part of the research is qualitative, and I have begun to hold focused group discussions with various stakeholders- including FDW themselves, consulates of sending countries, trade unions, HK government, civil society and charity organizations. 

Here comes in my real learning process on research. AMC staffs have been particularly helpful and trusting in giving us (I am working with another intern from the NYC) the full responsibility of conducting these discussions. 
Even though I was not able to get involved in the overall research design, I feel like I'm actually reviewing and applying everything I learned in the first-year MPP core classes on statistics and econometrics. By studying how survey questions were made (avoid ordering and all other traps!), how to collect samples (relying on "quasi-scientific" methods as our executive director explains), how to instruct migrants to distribute them (ensuring the most accurate research methodologies), and how to draw conclusions (correlation but no causation!). 

Which naturally leads to the advocacy part. First I have the most valuable time with different migrant women every single day, to listen to their voices and stand with them. 
Moreover, I am excited to see how this research will actually be used in the real world, because the ultimate purpose of our research is to map the current realities faced by FDW, and use them as the resource for campaigns ensuring for more protection and enjoyment of basic labor and legal rights, such as 8HR workday, overtime compensation, restdays, social security and many more. 

That is why I have put three words above as the title of this post. 

Although not always a one-way, empathy is essential for advocacy and through it, we are able to achieve solidarity with people of starkly different backgrounds. 

On my way to the AMC Office in Kowloon. It's a busy industrial district full of working class local people, unlike more well-known fancy neighborhoods in HK. But I think I will miss the energy in the streets, cheap and delicious food!

As I try to meditate on these three words everyday, even for a short moment, I am also happy to see my research agenda being developed in more specific terms. I think I defined the "economic empowerment" quite narrowly, because I was trying to look for specific models of economic survival or success through training, saving schemes, or entrepreneurship. But now I am focusing more on the power of social capital or networks, advocacy work from the grassroots, and government policies. Hope to share more concrete ideas in the next post! 

Friday, July 2, 2010

July 1st rally

My first official day of internship began with just what I wanted, face-to-face interaction with migrant women!

July 1st has a special presence in contemporary Hong Kong's history. The year 1997 marks the handover of Hong Kong to People's Republic of China after a century. For pro-democratic civil society groups, the day is also of a particular importance, because in 2003 they held mass protests against the legislation restricting freedom of speech and expression. Since then, July 1st has been commemorated differently by two groups in Hong Kong.

For migrants, this year's rally served as a crucial platform to raise awareness for pressing issues, mainly the adoption of the Domestic Workers Convention at the ILO next year.

So, together with the AMC staffs, interns and migrant groups, I went out in the streets sizzling with a record-high temperature of 33 C (91 F) in the peak of the day. 

But I had so much fun! I've been to numerous demonstrations, peaceful as well as violent. As a journalist for social news in South Korea, where the tradition of "people power" continues even after the country's democratization, it was almost inevitable. I must confess that I have also been a part of angry and sad protesters at times. 

Yet this one was something! 
First, we marched across the heart of the Hong Kong City, from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to City Government Office in Central. Walking along the emptied streets with the "citizens" of Hong Kong, regardless of legal status or nationalities, I felt liberated, and felt deep desire from the grassroots demanding more democracy. 

Second, I was touched by the extraordinary commitment and passion from migrant women, mostly migrant domestic workers. In their rare day-off, they were out interacting, organizing, and advocating their rights themselves. 

Women representing the Filipina domesic workers' union gather at Victoria Park. 

Indonesian domestic workers getting ready for the rally, with creative face-prints and costumes. 

Indonesian women in hijab chant slogans for the rally. 

The day of campaigning concluded with another unexpected surprise. At one of the domestic workers association's office in Causeway Bay, I was treated with an amazing Indonesian food. The association  runs a small but perfect restaurant (and a shop) for fundraising on Sundays, where domestic workers enjoy their only day-off in a week.

It's been two days since the rally... but chants are still ringing in my ears...
"Domestic workers what do we want? No discrimination for us! Equal payment, equal rights!"

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Road to real empowerment?

In my previous post, I questioned whether the South Korean government's recent efforts in bringing 'multiculturalism' are truly effective in empowering migrant women.
While in Seoul, I explored three examples that could act as alternatives to the problematic top-down approach.

1. "Let our voice be heard": theatre run by migrant women

Formed in 2008, a theatre group called 'Salad' is a social enterprise seeking to build migrant women's capacities through cultural activities. It trains women who are interested in theatre performance, as actors or other staffs, and stage them regularly in various venues around the country. Through this, migrant women are engaged in a more productive and public affairs, and also form support networks/communities with one another. Salad is named after their goal, because they believe it exemplifies the state of peaceful coexistence and grassroots multiculturalism. I think this type of cultural engagement is successful in making these women more visible and independent as well as more integrated into the Korean society.

2. "We as transmitters of multiculturalism": a restaurant run by migrants 

The restaurant called "Oyori" is located near Hongik University, a youthful and hip cultural district of Seoul, is unique because some of its workers are migrant women. Oyori came to its existence through a social enterprise initiative called 'Project Oyori', which seeks to involve marriage migrant women into economic activities, rather than just family care or child rearing, through cooking. Despite the growing desire for these women to participate in economic activities, there are not many opportunities out there. I think cooking can be a good, realistic start, with high chances of success. Eventually, Oyori hopes migrant women to become entrepreneurs themselves, which faces many financial and sociocultural hurdles at the moment.

 3. The first women migrant local legislator

This woman (Lee Ra) is the very first migrant woman who was elected as a local legislator in the local elections last June. Originally a marriage migrant from Mongolia, she announced her desire to run for the post on her own, to advocate for pressing policy issues related to migrant women. I think she demonstrates an excellent example of empowered women, and hope Korea will have more of these migrant women in public service, who can speak for themselves, and act as citizens.

At last, I am in Hong Kong! First impressions and more to follow soon...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In Seoul

Before I head to Hong Kong's Asian Migrant Centre, I am staying in my hometown, Seoul, South Korea.
It's exciting to be back after nearly 10 months of living as an overseas graduate student (yes, I also was a migrant!), to meet my family, friends, and colleagues in a familiar environment.
What's more exciting, is that South Korea provides such a dynamic setting for my summer project, because the number of migrants, especially migrant women, is growing rapidly.

One Sunday in Ansan, Gyongi Province, which hosts a major community of migrant workers and is home to many factories. The local government has officially termed this area as "Borderless Village". Note that most migrants out in the streets are male, a stark difference from Hong Kong. It reflects the unique fact that "labor" migrants in South Korea are male-dominated, but also that women are often discouraged from occupying the public space.

Since the early 2000s, international marriages between Korean men and foreign women have rapidly increased, accounting for more than 11% of total marriages as of 2008. Thus, the adjustment of foreign women has become a full-scale policy challenge for South Korea, who has remained a homogeneous society for more than five millenniums. Women who come as marriage migrants are mostly from Southeast Asia and China (and few from former Soviet Union countries), and they experience legal or human rights barriers, as well as difficulties in language, culture, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds.
The government has responded to these challenges by embracing “multiculturalism”. Establishing community centers assisting ‘multicultural’ families that provide language/cultural training, promoting multicultural education, and so on.

But is this sort of top-down multiculturalism sufficient, or effective?
I feel something fundamental is missing, that is, gender-sensitive and empowerment perspective.

"Damunhwa Gil", which means "Multiculture Street", in Ansan. But is multiculturalism achieved by city planning?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The end is the beginning...

Already a week has passed since the end of a hectic academic year.
Now I should really get started with my summer project!

During this summer break –which is the first break, and also probably be the last- I plan to pursue an independent research into three topics that are dear to my heart and soul. Migration, Gender, and Asia.
I will be looking closely into the issue of Asian migrant women and their economic empowerment, by combining internship and field research in non-profits from key Asian countries.

Why migrant women in Asia?
I look forward to answer this question in more detail in the coming weeks, but let me just throw in quick facts and thoughts for now.
Nearly half of Asia’s migrants are women. They take different forms such as migrant workers (mostly domestic workers) and marriage migrants, and they hold varied motives for migration. Some form new families, while others leave their children behind. Numerous structural discrimination and violence that surround females and migrants altogether are complicated in these migrant women’s situation.

These may sound too general and broad. One of my friend who I had lunch with yesterday musingly remarked; “Isn’t that way too obvious? I mean the conclusion of your study will be something like- community organizing, government support, social consensus, right?”.

Well… that may be true after all!
But for the moment, I suppress all desires to jump into hasty conclusion. Rather, I hope to develop perspectives and sensitivities toward the lives of Asia’s migrant women, at least for the next three months.
However invisible and powerless they may be right now, there is no doubt that these women are changing the face of global migration. We cannot live without them. How would middle class families and professional women around the globe raise their children without domestic workers? How would bachelors from rural villages or lower working class in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan (and increasingly China!) have chances of marrying, without women from poorer Southeast Asia?

So as warm-up for my project, I plan to consult exemplary works by several outstanding scholars in this field. They include:

And finally, scholarly works by Hyun Mee KIM, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Yonsei University, who is also my dearest teacher. She has done pioneering research on studying Southeast Asian migrant women in Korea, and I am personally indebted to her for my interests in this field since 2005.