Gruesome murders expose plight of Hong Kong’s Indonesian migrants
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Gruesome murders expose plight of Hong Kong’s Indonesian migrants

The horrific double murder of Sumarti Ningsih and Seneng Mujiasih offers yet another chilling reminder of the abuse and exploitation often faced by Indonesia’s vulnerable migrant workers in Hong Kong, particularly those employed (both legally and illegally) as sex workers or domestic helpers.

Rurik Jutting, a 29-year-old British citizen and former Merrill Lynch banker, was arrested on suspicion of murder in the early hours of Saturday morning, after summoning police investigators to his luxury Wan Chai district apartment. The victims were found dead at the suspect’s apartment — one having been “partially decapitated,” bundled into a suitcase, and left out for days on the Jutting’s balcony. A few days earlier, Jutting had allegedly described himself as an “insane psychopath” in an automated email.

Sumarti Ningsih, the first victim, was a 25-year-old Indonesian from the island of Java, who travelled to Hong Kong on a 30-day tourist visa. The second victim was initially identified as a 30-year-old Filipino, but has since been re-identified as Seneng Mujiasih from Muna, south Sulawesi, after the Indonesian Consulate in Hong Kong confirmed that she was previously using a false name.

Sumarti Ningsih is thought to have been dead for about five days before Jutting took a knife to his second victim last Friday night. Ningsih’s naked body was reportedly in an advanced state of decomposition when police investigators arrived at the gruesome murder scene, and a neighbour at Jutting’s ‘J Residence’ said he had noticed “a stink in the building like a dead animal.”

A spokesperson for the Indonesian Consulate said that Ningsih had been in Hong Kong for less than one month at the time of her murder, and her visitor’s permit was set to expire on November 3. Local media outlets believe that Ningsih worked as a prostitute in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai red light district — where she would later cross paths with Jutting — though this is still to be confirmed.

The second victim, 30-year-old Seneng Mujiasih, was reportedly working as a domestic helper with a Hong Kong family, but also moonlighted as a “part-time disc jockey in a pub,” according to a friend’s testimony. It is widely believed — again, without conclusive evidence — that Mujiasih was also working as a prostitute at the time of her murder.

Eni Lestari, an Indonesian union leader and chairlady of the International Migrants Alliance, deciphered Mujiasih’s nationality and alias by analysing her Facebook page. Mujiasih wrote in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, and photographs of her working in a pub were also posted online.

Dutch DJ Robert van den Bosch, who has known Mujiasih for four years, has denied that she was working as a prostitute in Hong Kong. Bosch has also claimed that he was with Mujiasih shortly before her fateful encounter with Rurik Jutting. The Dutchman said that he last heard Mujiasih talking to two friends outside a Wan Chai pub at around 8.45pm last Friday: “She said ‘I’m going to have fun. I’m going to a Halloween party,'” Bosch told the UK Telegraph. “Those really were the last words . . . Those are the two things repeating in my head.”

Another tragedy for Indonesia’s vulnerable migrant workers 

During a previous high-profile case in August 2013, escaped housemaid Kartika Puspitasari, 31, alleged that her employers had subjected her to two years of brutal torture and false imprisonment when she worked in Hong Kong between 2010 and 2012. Kartika was taken on as a live-in domestic worker by a seemingly ordinary middle-aged Hong Kong couple, who each had professional jobs in retail and healthcare respectively.

The couple withheld Kartika’s passport immediately upon her arrival, and then proceeded to keep her locked up inside the house at all times without a key of her own. When the couple came home from work, Kartika would be subject to regular beatings with objects such as metal chains, a metal clothing rack, shoes and even a red hot iron — leaving the poor housemaid branded for life. In June 2012, Kartika was forced to put on a diaper and left strapped to a chair with her hands and feet bound together for five days, whilst her ’employers’ went on a beach holiday to Thailand. Kartika was deprived of food and water throughout the ordeal, and had to relieve herself where she sat.

Every year, an estimated 700,000 documented Indonesian migrant workers go in search of employment overseas. Many of these workers head for Malaysia and Taiwan — the two most popular destinations — closely followed by Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Hong Kong. The most recent data gathered by the National Agency for the Protection and Placement of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI) claims that were approximately 4.3 million documented Indonesian migrants working overseas at the time of the study in August 2009. This figure has undoubtedly grown during the intervening years, and would perhaps double, triple or quadruple if undocumented workers were also taken into account.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 75 per cent of Indonesia’s documented overseas workers are women, the vast majority of whom are employed as domestic helpers. In Hong Kong, where the employment of cheap domestic helpers continues to be in vogue, Indonesian women make up almost half of the island’s 319,325 documented migrant workers.    

Trafficking, extortion, physical and sexual abuse are becoming increasingly rife among Hong Kong’s swelling army of guest workers, and none seem to be more vulnerable to exploitation than those who hail from poor Indonesian families with few opportunities and little education.

In 2013, Amnesty International published an exhaustive study of Indonesian female domestic workers in Hong Kong, based on interviews with women who had experienced problems during the migration process, interviews with recruitment and placement agencies in both countries, and also a labour conditions survey of 903 Indonesian domestic helpers. The findings of the study are truly shocking, and clearly presage further misery for Indonesia’s Hong Kong diaspora in future, unless the two countries can co-operate effectively to combat human trafficking:

[Amnesty International] found that recruitment and placement agencies, in Indonesia and Hong Kong respectively, are routinely involved in the trafficking of migrant domestic workers and their exploitation in conditions of forced labour, as they are using deception and coercion to recruit Indonesian migrants and to compel them to work in situations which violate their human and labour rights. The principal mechanisms of coercion which are applied in both Indonesia and Hong Kong are the confiscation of identity documents, restrictions on freedom of movement and the manipulation of debt incurred through recruitment fees.

After being repeatedly duped and saddled with unforeseen debts en route to Hong Kong, many of the newly arrived migrants will later be compelled to take up some form of extra work on top of their domestic duties. Some of these women will be fortunate enough to find work in a bar, restaurant or salon, whilst an unlucky few will find themselves entering Hong Kong’s thriving undocumented sex trade against their will, just to break even with rogue recruiters and agencies.

Since the killings were announced last Saturday morning, local media in Hong Kong and unscrupulous tabloids worldwide — particularly in the UK — have rushed to the assumption that both Sumarti Ningsih and Seneng Mujiasih were working as prostitutes at the time of their grisly murder. This, however, is yet to be established as fact. And in the interests of veracity and respect for the victims’ families, I think it is crucial to note that the investigation is still ongoing, and the occupation of the two women is still to be confirmed. We also do yet not know whether the victims were originally trafficked to Hong Kong or travelled without coercion, but it would not be unusual considering the scale and ruthlessness of the “maid trade” between the two countries.