Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong Denied Vote


On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 22, the Indonesian General Elections Commission officially announced the result of the presidential election: Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) had won with 53.15 percent of the votes.

The election, perhaps the most fiercely contested in Indonesia’s history, was also the most exciting: rousing enthusiastic campaign volunteers, vigorous social media commentators, and almost 135 million voters. But not all got their chance to participate.

In Hong Kong, though, more than 100 Indonesian citizens – mostly migrant domestic workers – claimed they were denied their vote in the election when the polls closed Sunday, July 6.

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An independent volunteer election supervisory team in Hong Kong filed an official complaint of alleged infractions committed by the Overseas Elections Organizing Committee (PPLN), namely administrative mismanagement and potential voter intimidation, on July 9.

The Elections Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) in Hong Kong responded and conducted an investigation that yielded conflicting evidence.

Based on this investigation, the national Elections Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) announced that there were no infractions at the Hong Kong voting site.

This year’s presidential election between two very different candidates – ex-military lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto and Jakarta governor Jokowi – saw an unprecedented rise in voter participation. In Hong Kong, where its own previous legislative election drew a mere 6,000 voters, Victoria Park saw an estimated 23,000 people for the Indonesian elections.

“The central lawn of Victoria Park was full of people on election day,” recounted voter Answer Styannes. “The weather was hot and humid, but it didn’t discourage people from waiting in queues under the sun. Everybody seemed to be very enthusiastic about the election.”

Despite this turnout, the organizing committee closed the voting booths at 5 p.m., leaving many eager to still exercise their constitutionally protected right to vote stranded and angered. Around 5.30 p.m. a mob of disenfranchised voters and their sympathizers staged a protest, demanding that the voting booths be reopened. Videos of the protests went viral on YouTube and social media sites.

“[The election comes] once every five years and I failed to vote though I waited in line since 3 p.m., imagine my sadness,” pleaded a domestic migrant worker from Central Java who has worked in Hong Kong for six years.

“On election day, we registered 133 people who did not vote after the site closed,” said the independent supervisory team’s spokesperson Sring Atin.

Witnesses claim the election procedure was wrought with confusion and misinformation, causing delays that led to many losing their opportunity to vote.

“Once we stepped onto the central lawn, we were not sure what we needed to do as there were no signs explaining the procedure, no members of the election committee we could ask,” Answer said. “The queues were crazy too. They were very long and it wasn’t clear where they actually began. Very disorganized.”

The Election Supervisory Committee has admitted that their human resources were limited and their staff scrambled to register the thousands of voters.

“I acknowledge that the queue management needed improvement,” Election Supervisory Committee chief Galih Kusumah said.

But time was restricted. The Indonesian consulate general office in Hong Kong confirmed in an official statement that Hong Kong authorities only granted the organizing committee permission to use Victoria Park from 8.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition to this complaint of mismanagement, some witnesses also claim there were incidents of voter intimidation, including the allegation that an election official declared that the booths will be reopened if they vote for Prabowo.

Many of the protesters appeared to support Jokowi, shouting “Jokowi! Jokowi!” as they pushed against the barriers.

Taking witness testimonies, photos, and video evidence, the independent supervisory team filed a report and an official complaint. The aim was to demand a follow-up election for those who have not voted.

“This affects our fate and the fate of the Indonesian nation,” Sring stressed.

However, some evidence in the Election Supervisory Committee’s possession contradicted those obtained by the volunteer team.

Election Supervisory Body commissioner Nasrullah stated that, contrary to the reports forwarded by the volunteer team, only a few dozen Indonesian citizens who came to the site failed to vote on election day. These people, he said, arrived late, effectively violating the rules of the procedure.

“At 5 o’clock there were no lines, the area was empty,” Galih said in corroboration, stating he has photographic proof. “But around 5.30 about 55 people came in because they were late. They were taking photos outside the site. They were people who waited outside the park because they didn’t want to wait in line.”
Nasrullah further defended the organizing committee’s action of closing the voting site after 5 p.m. despite the turnout.

“We respect the rules that apply in another country and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Nasrullah told reporters.

Galih added that reopening the polls was out of the question.

“That would be allowing the organizing committee to break their own regulations,” he argued.

However, this reasoning has been disputed by the independent volunteer team, citing that any registered group, society, or trade union can submit a permit request to use public sites like Victoria Park to the Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department. If approved, they can use the site from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m.

As for the emphatic plea to uphold the electorate’s constitutional right to vote?

“If we’re talking about constitutional rights, if the person has violated the rules then do they still have that right?” Galih offered.

On July 7, the General Elections Commission denied requests to hold another election in Hong Kong. The Election Supervisory Body’s conclusion upholds that decision.

“I find the reasoning to be clear,” Galih said. “We have to act objectively.”

Yet this seemingly strictly bureaucratic decision betrays a deeper, underlying problem in Indonesia: a lack of understanding of the plight of domestic migrant workers.

The Election Supervisory Body’s announcement came in spite of an online petition via to protect the migrant workers’ right to vote having garnered almost 10,000 signatures to date.

Forty-seven percent of Hong Kong’s over 300,000 migrant domestic workers come from Indonesia. Some were trafficked or, as per a 2013 Amnesty report,duped into working by brokers and agencies with little guidance or protection from the Indonesian or Hong Kong governments.

The election was scheduled on a Sunday in an attempt to accommodate the majority of the electorate. However, not all domestic workers have Sundays off. As was the case with the Indonesian workers who came to Victoria Park, they would have had to request leave from their employers far in advance. Often, they are only granted leave for very special occasions like the Muslim celebration of Eid and, even in that case, only given a few hours.

Further, according to a 2011 survey by the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU), Indonesian domestic migrant workers are largely concentrated in the Kowloon, Hong Kong, New Territories, Taipo, and Shatin regions. But the election organizers only provided one voting site at Victoria Park.

Living on a minimum monthly wage of 517 USD, many of these workers already suffer physical assault, verbal abuse, and financial exploitation on a too-regular basis. The domestic workers and their allies have been working to ensure they don’t also lose their right to civic participation.

“We have very limited opportunities to participate in government even though we have the right to do so guaranteed by the constitution,” Answer said of migrant workers abroad. “Voting in the election is one of the very few of our chances—if not the only one—to exercise our right to participate.”

The volunteer supervisory team and a coalition of activists are currently organizing a response strategy, Sring confirmed. To date, the election supervisory team has not provided an official explanation for their conclusion to the complainants. Sring said the independent team aims to continue working on the case. “The goal is to ensure that this doesn’t happen again in the future,” she said.

Votes from election sites in Hong Kong and Macau overwhelmingly went to Jokowi, who claimed 75.4 percent, far beyond his rival Prabowo who received 24.3 percent of the 25,335 votes.

Aria Danaparamita is a journalist and former Freeman Asian Scholar at Wesleyan University.

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