The agonies of Indonesian migrant workers will likely continue as the government has repeatedly failed to manage its overseas labor policy.
In Indonesia, international labor migration has been perceived as a meager issue by the government both before and after independence. At the beginning of the 20th century (1905) the Dutch introduced internal migration policy (emigratie) to resettle the Javanese to Lampung in South Sumatra in attempt to resolve demographic pressures and the declining welfare of Java’s population. Since then, internal migration preoccupied the government policy and continued after independence (transmigrasi).
The emphasis on internal migration policy influenced the thinking of the ruling elite, which has resulted in the overlooking of international migration. Compare us to the Philippines, which has a long tradition of international migration, Indonesia has a relatively limited experience of cross-border labor movement.
The Indonesian government recognized the existence of international labor migration around the mid-1980s when the press began to report the abuses experienced by Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
The reaction of the labor minister at the time, Adm. Sudomo the former head of the Command for Security and Public Order (Kopkamtib), is typical of Indonesian bureaucrats; instead of protecting the vulnerable migrant workers, he accused the press of circulating falsified stories and instructed domestic workers not to talk with the press.
Sudomo’s attitude to migrant workers three decades ago is no different today. The Indonesian governments, from Soeharto to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, interestingly continue treating overseas labor as a minor issue and perceive the agony of overseas labor as merely an incidental occurrence.
President Yudhoyono on one occasion stated that only 1 percent of the total overseas migrant workers experienced violence or human right abuses. On a different occasion, House of Representatives speaker Marzuki Alie and head of the special task force created by the president to solve the problem of migrant workers, Maftuh Basyuni (former religious affairs minister and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia), cited the improper behavior of migrant workers as the source of the problem.
There is no doubt that the president and his administration neglect the vulnerability of migrant workers and have been non-committal in improving the protection and security of overseas labor.
Interestingly, amid the ad-hoc and reactionary responses by the ruling elites to the problem of overseas labor, the number of people who cross the state’s borders to look for jobs has steadily increased. The flow of labor reflects the high demand of workers in the receiving countries and the surplus of labor at the home countries.
The latest economic surveys (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 5, 2012) indicate that domestic job creation is very low although nationally economic growth is relatively high. The flow of labor also indicates that income disparities between Indonesia and the receiving countries remain high. Regretfully, overseas labor has only been given little attention and never integrated into the macroeconomic policy and overall human resource development planning in Indonesia.
A clear and comprehensive overseas labor policy is a long overdue. The migration industry, which for a long time has been left under the control of private agencies and labor brokers, should be regulated — migrant workers are citizens that should be protected by the state.
The current commodification of migrant workers that allows them to enter the international labor market unprotected should be regarded — not only as a violation of human right principles but more importantly — as a violation of the Indonesian Constitution.
A more detailed view on the current situation and condition of overseas labor is important to avoid over generalizations. The receiving countries of Indonesian migrant workers could be categorized into three groups: worst, medium and good, based on irregularities and human right violations experienced by the migrant workers.
Applying this simple categorization, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia would be under the worst category; while Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan would be falling into the medium category; and Japan and South Korea would be under the good category.
The Indonesian government must prioritize its overseas labor policy to be in favor of the receiving countries that, by their domestic social, economic and political natures, treat foreign migrant workers well.
Concerted efforts should be developed within and outside the state’s borders — and among the ministries, especially the Home Ministry, Law and Human Rights Ministry, Manpower and Transmigration Ministry and Foreign Ministry — if a viable overseas labor policy with a strong protection component will be formulated. In this effort, civil society organizations experienced in advocating for the improvement of migrant workers’ human rights conditions should be consulted in the early stages.
The writer is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.