From Service to Leadership: Profiling the Domestic Worker Leaders in Hong Kong

April 2, 2020
Category: Partnerships | People Profile

In Profile: Shiella Estrada, Chairperson of Hong Kong Philippines Labour Union

Hong Kong’s migrant worker unions play a vital role in championing the needs of migrant workers across the city.  JWB works closely with these groups, particularly the veteran domestic workers that have gone from service in their employer’s homes to leading the union movement for migrant workers.  A notable leader among them is Shiella Grace Estrada. 

From Career and Children at Home to Her Journey Abroad 

Hailing from Tayug, Pangasinan in the North of Manila, Shiella originally worked in Manila as a manager of a trading company.  Her journey abroad began after she and her husband separated. She was so afraid that she could not give her two young daughters a better life that she plucked up her courage to work in Singapore as a migrant domestic worker (MDW).  When she moved to Hong Kong a year later, she only planned to stay for four years. However, financial necessity prevented her from going home. Her work abroad paid for her children’s education and upbringing, at the cost of seeing them only on trips back home.  

Today, with her daughters fully grown and with families of their own, Shiella has a different reason for staying in Hong Kong to work – to help low paid workers like herself.  

“I honestly believe that we are the ones who need to push for law and policy changes that are ‘anti-workers’,” Shiella says, “This will give better protection to the next generation of migrant workers so that they can have a more promising future.  I know this is too ambitious, but I still have hope and faith that the people who run Hong Kong can slowly change laws that are discriminatory.” Shiella’s work is now lobbying the Hong Kong government for better protection for the most vulnerable workers.  

“Workers can move mountains if we are all united in campaigning for equality.”

A Quarter Century of Union Leadership 

Shiella has long been at the heart of the Hong Kong migrant labour movement, since 1996. She was a founding member of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union and the Overseas Domestic Workers Union in Hong Kong, and is currently the Chairperson of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers – Hong Kong (PLUDW).  The PLUDW is actually an overseas branch of the Philippines nationwide union SENTRO. The latter is now expanding its services to returning migrant workers, both still abroad and already back home.

Shiella exemplifies the adage of ‘workers helping workers’.  Over her 35 years of experience as a migrant domestic worker, first in Singapore in 1985, and then in Hong Kong from 1986, Shiella has tackled the lack of needed education, help centres and shelters for fellow workers in Hong Kong. She has also worked hard to address her fellow workers’ own lack of experience in organizing and pushing for their rights, bringing others into the unions and empowering them to stand up when needed. Shiella has done all of this as a volunteer, continuing her duties as a full-time migrant domestic worker up until today.  

Working with JWB

Shiella’s expanding union membership meant a larger leadership team, and with it an increasing desire to have her and her team knowledgeable in the legal aspects of migrant workers’ rights. 

She brought in JWB in 2017 after meeting JWB local staff at a union meeting. By then, Shiella and her team were fielding an increasing number of cases every month, from illegal agency fees to exploitation by bad employers. She saw the need for a strong case team and looked to JWB trainings to help make that possible. 

JWB began training PLUDW’s members in 2018 on effective casework involving civil claims, empowering them to help workers claim compensation from exploitative agencies and employers.  The workshops covered common abuses faced by migrant workers, including overcharging by employment agencies, illegal deployment, physical abuse and unlawful dismissal. 

“Right from the start, they were friendly and supportive,” Shiella explained, reflecting on her first impressions of the JWB team,  “and I was very comfortable working with them. Although they all had a background in the legal profession, we never felt spoken down to, and we could speak openly about what we needed and how we felt.”  

“I have come to regard the JWB team as my own family members – Justine and Nanor, they’re just like my elder daughters,” she added.

Hong Kong Labour Tribunal’s First-ever Union Representative for a Worker Overseas

In early 2019, the Hong Kong Labour Tribunal issued a groundbreaking decision to allow an ex-migrant domestic worker to continue her case via video conferencing from the Philippines.  She had sought compensation against her previous employer for unfair dismissal while in Hong Kong, but a family member falling gravely ill forced her to return to the Philippines, leaving her case in limbo.  Video conferencing meant that she could continue to pursue her case without having to fly to Hong Kong. With this decision, migrant workers now have a clear precedent that they may not need to return to Hong Kong to have their day in court.  

The Labour Tribunal also confirmed that union officers could represent workers attending court from abroad. With lawyers barred from representing parties at the Tribunal, workers back home would need to rely on a local liaison to manage the case. 

Working with JWB and HELP for domestic workers, Shiella was the first union officer to represent this same migrant worker overseas in a trial. 

“I felt very nervous about the whole process,” Shiella reflected,” but the JWB team reassured me that they would guide me through everything I needed to do, and be with me every step of the way.  That gave me the confidence I needed. Since then, I have represented more fellow migrant workers at the Labour Tribunal.” 

Most recently, Shiella has grown her case team further, engaging in a seven-month mentorship programme with JWB and pro bono lawyers. The work included tailor-made training sessions and case clinics for PLUDW’s volunteer caseworkers.  By the programme’s conclusion, PLUDW had 2 case teams, comprising more than 30 members who are able to conduct case interviews and give advice on evidence collection strategies.  

Shiella’s work has led to her case team identifying more cross-border cases, which she has referred to JWB. She and her union colleagues now have plans to have JWB train a new cohort of union volunteer caseworkers in 2020 as part of the ongoing capacity building efforts for Hong Kong labour union members.  

Going forward, Shiella is very focused on lobbying for more policy changes against migrant worker discrimination and ensuring that her case team grows to handle the large number of issues that her fellow domestic workers encounter.   The latter will depend on an even greater collaboration with JWB, which Shiella is keen to do,

“JWB plays a very important role in helping migrant workers in Hong Kong, particularly in the area of cross-border civil claims.  To my knowledge, there are no other organisations with connections to lawyers who can do this work. They are the first one, and we are very happy that they have established a foothold here in Hong Kong to help migrant workers claim just compensation even after they have gone home.  I feel great working with them, and I look forward to many more good years collaborating with them!”

Thanks to Shiella from the PLUDW and others like her in Hong Kong, we are making good progress in empowering migrant worker interest groups  to provide access to justice for migrant workers.