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Labatt Jolly dela Torre's heartfelt thanks to migrants rights advocates in HK

26 March 2019


(This message was delivered by Labor Attache Jalilo dela Torre at Linklaters in Alexandra House, Central on 25 March 2019, in response to a series of farewell tributes to him by government officials, migrant leaders, human rights lawyers and NGO staff)

Labatt Jolly being introduced by emcee Alan Bell 

Thank you all for coming tonight. I feel quite honored, and grateful. It’s not often that diplomatic officials are honored this way, and I feel special. In fact, before coming up to the rostrum, I had to pinch myself to make sure this is really happening. And it is happening. It’s surreal, and I should tell you this would not be possible at all if Emily Lau had not thought about it, and thank you, too, Allan Bell, for your organizing skills and to both your friendships. Looks like the Filipino community, and the people who care for them, are well represented here tonight. Looking around, I see a good number of people, and that if I will have as many good and decent people at my funeral, I think I’d be a happy man. But not yet. Not yet.

When I reported here for the second time in 2016, the first time being in 1998, I wondered how long it would take me to introduce meaningful changes into the system that was essentially stacked against our workers, changes which could somehow make the lives of our workers a little bit better and a little bit safer. I wondered, how long would it take for somebody in my position to keep pushing for reforms, and eventually consider his tour of duty a success? And I realized, what I was really asking was, how long is a piece of string? Because there is no expiration date on the need for reforms. There is no deadline for social change. It’s a never-ending and sometimes thankless task.

Caring for and fighting for our workers’ rights and welfare here in Hong Kong is never easy, as many of you present in this room tonight can attest. The numbers are simply overpowering, the issues intractable, the adversaries strong. But there is comfort from the fact that many people like yourselves are pushing the boulders blocking the way. Our combined strength will someday make the difference. Therefore, we should never give up. Because along the way, there are little triumphs, little victories and big lessons, which make the fight worth waging. Our small victories against window cleaning, against human trafficking, against rogue agencies and abusive employers—these were worth fighting for, and I can only express my gratitude to the whole community for their helping hands.

There are still plenty of items on the reform agenda: 1. Working hours; 2. Suitable accommodations; 3. Food. Very basic issues which I would have thought we never have to fight for, but we do, and it is sad that we have to. I would have wanted to stay longer to fight a little bit longer. But there are things in this world that are simply not for the wishing.

The matter of the poor health of many ofour workers should not be treated as an isolated issue. It has to be understood in the context of their poor working conditions. Our workers fall ill and some of them die, not primarily through lack of medical attention, but perhaps because of their working conditions. In 2018 alone, we lost 61 Filipinos in Hong Kong, and 75% of those deaths were due to illness. There has to be a way out of this—either through mandatory health check-ups that even the Indonesian Consulate General has seen fit to require, or stronger enforcement of the contractual and statutory working conditions of 350,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Our Project Health Wise has uncovered the fact that far too many of our workers are either diabetic or hypertensive, higher than our national average in both respects. But I suppose that would be for the next LabourAttache to fight for, assuming he or she has the stomach and the commitment.  I can tell him though that he’s definitely got his work cut out for him.

I therefore say goodbye to Hong Kong, comfortable with the thought that I have given my best shot, and in the process gained so many friends. I’m sorry I couldn’t mention all your names, but I couldn’t have survived Hong Kong without your help.I could’ve done more. We could’ve done more together, but I ran out of time. Unlike the issues we fight for, my tour of duty in Hong Kong has expired. It has been a pleasure knowing all of you, and thank you all for your help, your friendship, even your criticism. I will always remember all of you, and may you all keep the fires in your hearts burning. Hong Kong would be a great place to live and work: we just need to make sure that it becomes also a great place to live and work for our migrant workers. I know that all of you here are fighters and advocates for our workers’ welfare, and together you can really move things along. Good luck to all of you.

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