The Indonesian government is hoping to propose similar key demands stipulated in a signed memorandum of understanding with Malaysia on migrant workers in future negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
“We will bring the issues of one day off per week, passports, working hours, mechanisms for solving problems and types of services that will be provided by the Saudi Arabian government for our migrant workers, such as call centers and insurance,” Indonesia National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Overseas Labor (BNP2TKI) head Jumhur Hidayat said.
Indonesia and Saudi Arabia moved one step forward in resolving migrant worker issues by holding
a senior officials meeting on May 28 that produced a statement agreeing on a six-month deadline to draft an MoU.
According to Jumhur, who led the delegation at the senior officials meeting, there are still several difficult issues to be addressed, particularly related to aspects of Saudi Arabian culture, including how women are forbidden to go outside their places of residence.
“It will be difficult. However, we will try to not force Saudi Arabia to agree to things that contradict their culture. What we will do is ensure that the workers have access to communication with relatives, families or Indonesian authorities there,” Jumhur said.
Whatever the difficulties, Jumhur is optimistic that the MoU will be ready and signed within six months, the deadline set for preparations.
“There was a time when people were pessimistic we could reach a written agreement with Saudi Arabia. But the senior officials meeting shows that it is possible, convincing them of the real situation that drives the need for a formal agreement,” he said.
There are currently six million Indonesian citizens working overseas, 2.2 million of whom reside in Malaysia and another 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia.
As most of these workers are unskilled and have minimum protection from the government, they often become victims of abuses committed by their employers.
Indonesia signed a MoU with Malaysia on May 30 that formally ended Indonesia’s unilateral moratorium on sending workers to the neighboring country, which was implemented in June 2009.
In the MoU, Indonesian migrant workers have the right to keep their passports and other official documents, as well as to communicate with relatives and Indonesian authorities, including the embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Employers are also obliged to provide one day off per week. Moreover, a recruitment fee will be established by the two countries to supplant the control of private firms.
Indonesia, however, failed to force its demand for a minimum wage because Malaysia insisted the wage should be controlled by market mechanisms.
Anis Hidayah, the executive director of Migrant Care, an NGO focused on the welfare of Indonesian workers abroad, said that market-regulated wages would weaken the positions of Indonesian workers, most of whom are unskilled. “Indonesian migrant workers receive low wages because the market mechanism is a matter of competition in quality.”
She said that it would be difficult to propose the same key demands within the Malaysian MoU to the Saudis.
“Saudi Arabia is not an easy country. We have seen several deadlocks when trying to raise migrant worker issues, either in the context of building an agreement or in solving cases of our abused migrant workers there,” Anis said.
She suggested the use of the human rights approach on negotiation issues with Saudi Arabia.
“The human rights issues have the same value everywhere, which probably makes Saudi Arabia more receptive,” she said. (rcf)