Board Member Profile: Michelle Yu

April 8, 2021
Category: People Profile

From being born in China to studying in the United States to working in Hong Kong, Michelle relates to migrant workers’ journeys. Her long-running work with JWB has made her acutely aware of the struggles that they face on the ground. In this story, we speak to JWB’s longest-standing board member about her inspiring journey.

Could you tell us more about yourself?

I have moved a lot in my life. I was born in Hangzhou, China, and when I was six, I moved to the United States to join my parents, later moving to Hong Kong for high school. After graduation, I moved back to the US, attended university in California, and then studied at Georgetown University Law Center and graduated with a Juris Doctor degree. After a few years of working in the US, I moved back to Hong Kong to work about eight years ago. 

In this cycle of migration, I think of myself as a migrant worker, even though we don’t use this term to refer to white-collar workers. My migration journey from China to the United States to Hong Kong has made me aware of the different power dynamics struggles that migrant workers face.

I understand that you have been with JWB as a Board Member since 2015! How did you first become involved and what intrigued you to join this organization?

In 2014, I met Douglas at an Asia Pro Bono law conference and it was there I was introduced to Justice Without Borders (JWB). I thought that JWB had a very good mission and that my law background and work experience would add value to the organization. I was then involved in developing the first practitioner manual for JWB Hong Kong and I supervised a number of legal fellows and lawyers in successfully completing the manual in 2015.

Could you briefly describe what you do as a JWB Board Member?  What are some of your key tasks?

As the Board’s Secretary, I am heavily involved in the strategic planning and capacity-building aspects of the organization. For strategic planning, I am in the midst of setting the direction, mission, and objectives along with other Board Members, that will be the best for JWB. I am also involved in the hiring plans while taking into consideration the overall health of the organization so that JWB will be a good place to work and learn. 

How do you think JWB has grown and evolved over the years?

JWB’s network has grown a lot and the organization now works closely with many law firms and pro bono lawyers in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Indonesia. It has been a fulfilling process of understanding the cases and establishing connections, to get the best results. 

Has there been a memorable case that you have undertaken while serving as a Board Member at JWB HK?

The video link case the JWB team has been undertaking in Hong Kong is a memorable one. At JWB, making sure that the law that is already on the books is actually being followed, is of extremely great importance to our work. In the lower court, sometimes even the judges are not aware of what the requirements are, while in the higher court, the judges correctly identify that JWB is simply asking the courts to enforce existing law. The practitioner’s manual is just the basis for undertaking real-world work and across the years, we have started using those manuals to implement casework. It is very gratifying to see that we can use already-existing legal mechanisms to push for change to say that JWB is making sure that the laws are actually being followed. Rather than just letting the law only exist on a piece of paper, our role as JWB practitioners is to make the law come alive to help migrant workers in the real world. 

How do you think COVID-19 has impacted JWB and the wider migrant worker community?

Courts are adapting by utilising modern technology that was previously not adopted due to the insistence of in-person appearances and signatures. As JWB relies a lot on cross-border technology, a lot of issues that we faced with technology in court will be solved faster than expected, which will have a positive impact in the long run to our work. However, in the short term, many migrant workers are living with a high debt burden and are unable to work, or are trapped in the employer’s house. The unequal power dynamic is even worse during such a pandemic as people are stuck in their situations. Moreover, it is likely that there will be a lot of labour issues and casework arising out of this period, making JWB’s work extremely pertinent to the current situation. 

What are your hopes and aspirations for JWB?

I hope that JWB will continue to connect with people where it is needed and to pursue issues of access to justice for migrant workers. JWB’s long-term aim is to be present all over the world to deal with the different sets of labour challenges that migrant workers face. 

Is there anything you would like to say to people that are looking to support JWB?

JWB started from a small idea that wherever you are, you can always go somewhere for help, regardless of your background or circumstance.

This small idea can take us to a very large and noble goal of reducing labour exploitation and human trafficking, as well as seeking just compensation against abusers. 

Let’s close with a couple of questions about yourself. What are some of your hobbies?

I really like trail running, cooking, playing with my dog, and reading…always reading!

Is there a book that you would recommend to others?

A book that I recommend would be “How to Do Nothing”, as it taught me to slow down and appreciate life in a different way from what I was being taught. I can summarize the book’s central argument is: 

“Life is what you make out of it and your perceptions give meaning to the everyday actions that you take in the world.”