Indonesia's president appeared unsympathetic to the plight of his country's women subjected to abuse and exploitation while working abroad. On a visit to Hong Kong, he told them not to rock the boat over "small things."
Indonesian President Joko Widodo was met with a combination of celebration and protest in Hong Kong on Sunday as thousands of the city's foreign maids called on him for help.
There are some 170,000 Indonesians living in Hong Kong, many of whom are employed as domestic workers - an industry that has come under increased scrutiny amid a growing raft of abuse allegations.
More than 5,000 people, mostly women, turned up at the city's Asia World Expo to cheer their president but also to ask him for help.
Some protesters gathered outside the exhibition while others marched to the Indonesian Consulate, calling for better migrant rights.
"I hope the president can make our workplace safe," one domestic helper named Miasih said, explaining that her employer breaches her contract by making her work in two apartments.
"It's the attitude - she doesn't have a lot of respect for me," she added.
Widodo is on a two-day visit to Hong Kong, where he will meet local business leaders.
The president dismissed the pleas of his citizens, instead focusing his speech on the positive aspects of Indonesia's economy, infrastructure and diversity.
Widodo ignores his own people
In a veiled reference to their plight, Widodo told the women to just live with it.
"Don't let small things cause friction, clashes, division," he said.
Protesters criticized him for failing to address working conditions.
"We are already isolated because of the way we work and where we are, but the government, even when they're in front of us, does not think our voices are important," said former domestic worker Eni Lestari, now chairwoman of the International Migrants Alliance.
She said activists had tried without success to submit petitions or meet with Widodo.
All told, there are more than 300,000 domestic workers in Hong Kong, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Their plight made international headlines in 2014 with the case of Indonesian helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who was beaten and starved by her employer Law Wan-tung.
Despite that, worker-rights advocates say the case has not led to any systemic changes.
The Network of Indonesian Migrant Workers (JBMI) wants the government to set up a formal system for filing complaints and receiving compensation. It also wants employment agencies and employers who withhold passports or overcharge to be penalized, as well as the establishment of a standardized contract to prevent exploitation of workers.
A report by the Justice Center in 2016 concluded that one out of six foreign maids in Hong Kong fell into the category of "forced labor."
Last September hundreds of maids marched through Hong Kong after several workers fell to their deaths as they tried to clean tower block windows.
bik/sms (AFP, dpa)