Ashvin Kumar: The Torture of Undocumented Workers ‘Made My Skin Crawl’

Ashvin Kumar: The Torture of Undocumented Workers 'Made My Skin Crawl'

Today there are some 232 million migrants around the world living outside their home country. Many risk their lives to flee poverty and conflict in search of greater economic and social opportunities in more developed regions. But often, they’re greeted with even greater hardship, or worse, become trapped in cycles of abuse and exploitation.

A new film called I Am Not Here by Academy Award-nominated Indian filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, made in association with the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), explores these issues through the lives of three women. From Trinidad, Bolivia, and Bangladesh, they migrated abroad to become domestic workers in New York City, Switzerland, and Malaysia, respectively. Through their stories, the film depicts the isolation, constant fears of deportation, and physical abuse that remain common among this vulnerable group.

On December 18 in Mumbai and December 19 in New Delhi, Asia Society in India hosted screenings of the film followed by a panel discussion with the crew and other migrant advocates. Ahead of the event, director Ashvin Kumar, Christina MacGillivray, the film’s co-producer and lead researcher, and Pia Oberoi, a migration advisor at OHCHR, spoke with Asia Society Blog about the film and exploitation of migrants.

What drew you to making this film?

Ashvin Kumar: From the start, I think I put it out there to the UN that doing a facts-and-stats sort of Nat-Geo type documentary may miss a trick or two. I wanted to go behind the figures and the nameless statistics and tell the human, emotional story about these women. Too often those who make policies forget — or rather, it’s easy to forget — that these are real people with real families and ties. The idea — in my films always — is to link the personal life experience of my audience with those who are appearing on screen. So themes like a mother separated by economic necessity from her child for over two decades. I want to put the audience in those shoes and take them for a short stroll, just to see how it must feel.

How did you choose the subjects of your film?

Christina MacGillivray: It was genuinely a grassroots door-to-door research effort. In most cases, people in an undocumented situation in any country fear sharing their stories because the risk of deportation and arrest are too great. Why come forward on film if you are risking your safety, and the safety and education of your children? It is difficult. To gain trust, I first went through dozens of nonprofits across the three continents. But you also need to speak with a person on the ground in a city in order for them to understand you are here to help. In New York City, it started in one woman’s living room. She gave me another number. I trekked across the city, spoke with another woman and it went on and on like this. In Malaysia I interviewed around 40 women, many of whom had stories nearly as difficult as the young woman in the film. We are grateful to the women — both those who appeared in the film and to the many who shared their stories that led to the film — for the courage it took to come forward and speak out.

How did you get these women to open up on camera?

Ashvin Kumar: Be it talking to ex-militants in Kashmir or undocumented women in various parts of the world, there is a cathartic, healing quality in the act of speaking to someone. I try to discover what it is about the person I am talking to that will win their trust. People who have survived ordeals don’t trust easily. The idea is to get behind that bluster they’ve put up as a defense for themselves. In the case of Jennifer [the migrant from Trinidad living in New York City], for instance, it was really hard to get her story properly. We went over it many times, and each time it was facts and figures: “In year so-and-so I came here and did that.” It wasn’t until we got her really comfortable in her bedroom and let the camera roll without interrupting her, gently nudging the conversation along, that we got the interview in the beginning of the film.

We were also dealing with Malay and Spanish for three-quarters of the interviews in the film. Though I was asking the questions, I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. We had translators with us, but in an interview you don’t want the subject to lose the moment. I had to just look into their eyes, and feel what they were saying and then throw out another question. That was a huge challenge.

The film depicts a 17-year-old domestic worker that had been under the complete control of her employer and suffered extreme torture and sexual abuse — which the employer managed to avoid being prosecuted for. Are there any countries that are doing better than others at protecting vulnerable migrants like this?

Pia Oberoi: Sadly, the abuse of migrant domestic workers (particularly those who are in an irregular situation) is widespread in every region of the world; especially because, in many countries, domestic work is not considered a form of work and is therefore not protected by domestic labor laws. I would refer people to the OHCHR publication Behind Closed Doors, which was drafted to accompany this film and provides a sense of where there is good practice (South Africa has robust laws in place in this regard, as does Uruguay). The countries that are signatories to the recent International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189 on domestic work have taken at least a first step towards protecting the rights of these vulnerable people.

There have been frequent reports of cruelty and inhuman treatment directed towards domestic workers in Malaysia, as well as in the Gulf countries (see a recent Amnesty International report on Qatar).

Looking at the big global picture, do you have a sense of whether exploitation of domestic workers is getting any better or worse?

Pia Oberoi: That’s a slightly difficult question to answer, as with most human rights questions! On the one hand, the international legal framework has certainly been buttressed by the ILO Convention 189, as well as other initiatives such as the General Comment No. 1 of the Committee on Migrant Workers, and initiatives such as the joint program of work between OHCHR and ILO. On the other hand, the abuses against domestic workers, given that they take place in private homes with little scrutiny, continue, and even one story like [the 17-year-old girl in Malaysia] is one too many.

The other aspect highlighted by the film is that when someone is in an irregular situation, they are generally vulnerable to exploitation because they are in constant fear of detection and deportation and so cannot challenge an employer who pays them less than the going rate, or a policeman who demands a bribe. Yet in most countries in Europe, for example, there is an almost total lack of legal channels for migrants to enter as domestic workers, meaning that most workers are irregular. We need to value domestic workers as human beings with human rights, and ensure that domestic work is decent work.

What was the most shocking thing you learned in the course of making the film?

Ashvin Kumar: The horrific torture that the girl in Malaysia had to suffer was not dissimilar to horror stories of torture and human rights abuses I’ve chronicled in Kashmir. To hear of such heinous crimes in the domestic space against child of 14 or 15 — with no legal consequences for the perpetrators — in one of the top Asian economies made my skin crawl. Things like that are very, very hard to stomach.

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