Opinion

Doing more with less for
Indonesian migrant workers

The 1970s were the golden age for social movements, with hippies struggling against a war-torn society through the means of rock and roll music and a euphoric love for humanity. They were all in it together, for the one humbling goal of world peace.

Well, maybe.

The 1970s were actually when global migration was on the rise. Some migrants left to evade repression or rejoice with long lost families, while others went in search of a better life.

It is true that the pursuit of the “American Dream” and its similar notions were too good to ignore during that period. Indonesian migrants were largely compelled to find a sanctuary that was fairly similar to home — the Middle East.

For some, working in the Middle East is like hitting two birds with one stone. Although most jobs are informal, it gives migrant workers the luxury to send remittances for loved ones back home.

And for our Muslim brothers and sisters, being in the Middle East is, in a way, a chance to be “closer” to the Almighty; a pilgrimage not many can enjoy.

But there is a growing notion that Indonesian migrants should have gone elsewhere. Forty years have passed since the exodus and policymakers find themselves at an impasse in terms of dealing with the consequences.

When a heartfelt tragedy resurfaces on the news, we swiftly react and find ourselves at full throttle, protecting our troubled citizens.

But getting around this issue is like playing poker. And most of the time, we are caught bluffing with cards that have a low probability of success; the two of diamonds for high unemployment rate, the four of hearts for deficient recruitment agencies, the five of spades for barriers of national laws, and the seven of spades for the application of international law. Could it get any better?

On most occasions, the problem starts here at home. Miscommunication and mismanagement among the related parties are prevalent, such as the recruitment process and pre-departure training that must significantly improve. These are drawbacks that could have been avoided in the first place.

Policymakers are on the right track but may require others to share the burden. Temporarily imposing a ban on sending maids to the Middle East until the government signs a bilateral deal to better protect workers from employer abuse, while imposing stricter rules on agencies, have been largely effective.

The level of abuse is falling and receiving countries are beginning to feel the heat.

Diplomatic negotiations are crucial and must continue to spearhead our efforts. This, however, should not stop us from applying pragmatic solutions. Sometimes, all it takes is direct attention and building a “safe” environment for our workers abroad; a home outside of a home.

For instance, building shelters for women migrant workers would enforce appropriate working hours and ease monitoring processes, which in effect would minimize the possibility of sexual abuse and violence from respective employers.

Like student shelters that already exist in various parts of the Middle East, migrant workers, too, would highly benefit from such schemes.

Perhaps we could cross out more than 5,000 women migrant workers that have reported physical and sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia alone.

The debate expands beyond migrant workers as victims of abuse. In some cases, migrant workers are charged as criminal perpetrators. This may be why the issue of protection remains unresolved.

For one reason or another, there are cases where migrant workers were found to have psychological complications. The feeling of hopelessness and detachment from society may have led them to taking the law into their own hands.

Aside from shelters, a communal or public center for migrant workers allows them to reconnect with others like them. This brings a sense of support and access for consultation with professionals to cope with emotional and mental hardships. Having someone to talk to can be a big help.

That is why the treatment between migrant workers in the Middle East and those in Asia, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is striking.

In those places workers are given a greater sense of freedom and belonging. It is, therefore not uncommon for our migrant workers to feel as if they are a part of these cities. And also it is not to our surprise that migrant workers today are increasingly opting for other regions other than the Middle East.

Building the right physical presence for our migrant workers is not only desirable but also financially viable. Insurance companies, recruitment agencies and other related parties can galvanize funds for the construction of shelters and centers in regions that are most prone to violence or crime.

In the long run, doing so may be cheaper than having to pay diyat, or bailout money for capital punishment, and the legal expenses accrued in the defense of our migrant workers.

This is not to mention the amount of resources bestowed on bringing our migrant workers back home due to unforeseen circumstances.

It is constitutional to protect our citizens at all costs but there is room for others to play a stronger role in finding the right solutions to such a complicated problem. It is time for everyone on board to shift our overall approach from reactive to preventive measures.

The writer is a diplomat who lives in Jakarta. The views expressed are personal.

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