CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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From migrant shelter to the United Nations

HONG KONG (SE): Sixteen years ago, Eni Lestari was a lost and bewildered soul taking shelter in a migrant worker refuge in Hong Kong from an abusive employer.

But in those short 16 years, her life journey has taken her from the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge to stand on the podium at the United Nations in New York and present a contract migrant worker’s perspective on life to representatives of 193 nations.

The gathering was convened to sign and formulate what has been termed The New York Declaration to address the most serious emergency in the world since the end of World War II—the human rights of refugees and migrants.

A reluctant voyager to Hong Kong lamenting lost educational opportunities due to an economic downturn in her native Indonesia, Lestari’s initial bad experience, combined with her natural grit and determination saw her promise herself that she would do two things in life; learn to speak English and become a community leader.

With a combination of self-determination, hard work and dedication to learn from whomever she could, on September 19 the articulate young woman told world leaders, “I am a migrant domestic worker. We are amongst the most exploited and most abused workers.”

She spoke of the neo-liberal economic model of today’s globalised economy explaining how it exposed her country to a serious crisis in the late 1990s that left the very survival of her family under threat, prompting her to put her hand up to reap the promised riches that the advertisements said were there for the taking in Hong Kong.

“Similar to others, I quickly found that the promises of a better income and future were just fiction,” she told the august body. “Debt, exploitation and the denial of human rights are the realities of a system that promotes export and exploitation of migrant labour.”

In her three minutes at the microphone, Lestari made a strong appeal for what she termed Development Justice, which she described as a clear pathway away from a system that actively promotes inequality and relies for its economic viability on cheap, throw-away labour.

Development Justice she said relies on redistributing justice equally among the citizens of the world. It demands the redistribution of wealth, power, resources and opportunities among countries—among the rich and the poor and between men and women.

Lestari made a strong call for an economic justice that builds wealth on the basis of equality in the valuing of labour, and facilitates the contribution of all people everywhere, so those who are currently left relying of the remittances of family abroad may also make their own contribution to the common good of all people the world over.

Her third call was for environmental justice that can guarantee a habitable space for all, especially those who today are most threatened—the marginalised and the poor, and her fourth was for gender justice that would see the end of economic systems that ensure women remain cheap or even unpaid labour.

However, Lestari saved her biggest call for the end, demanding that governments at least honour the commitments to justice they have made time and time again, and denied time and time again to billions of people.

Bethune House in Hong Kong is a lot more than a place to hide. Apart from being a safe house and assisting migrants in trouble to pursue their legal cases, it offers counselling services and space to clients to develop their potential and creativity, and blossom as a person.

“I was born as an empowered migrant in Bethune House. I was born as an activist migrant in Bethune House. In Bethune House I found everything I needed to be more human, to be treated like a worker, able to stand on my own,” Lestari told the Sun.

And stand on her own she did, learning her trade through exposure to the International Labour Organisation, in repeated rights advocacy meetings, negotiations with officials and the ever important street activity that is so precious for a migrant people with no voice in society and no space of their own to call home.

Speaking on behalf of the Asia Pacific Regional Civil Society Engagement Mechanism and the International Migrants Alliance, Lestari unashamedly told the United Nations gathering, “I hope you can honour not just my request, but the demands of migrants and women like me. Please be ambitious, be brave, be honourable and be just.”

In her strong call, she asked the 193 representatives of countries to incorporate Development Justice into The New York Declaration, saying, “If not, please tell me where I should go to achieve it.”

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