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Jakarta Post

Why migrant workers must not be forgotten

  • Edward Parker

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, April 30, 2015   /  06:33 am

Indonesia'€™s migrant workers are the unsung and marginalized heroes of the nation'€™s economy. They leave their loved ones, homes and villages to work abroad in unfamiliar far-off lands with the modest dream of earning enough money to send home to support their families and save up enough to one day build a better life for themselves. According to the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), an estimated 6.2 million Indonesian migrant workers currently work abroad.

The decision of these men and women to be parted from family and country and seek overseas is rarely driven by life choices, but life necessities. Possessing only basic education and with limited employment opportunities in their local, often rural, communities, the potential of higher wages abroad offers the promise of a better future.

According to a recent report from the World Bank, the remittances sent home by Indonesian migrant workers totaled US$8.55 billion in 2014 '€” equivalent to almost 0.9 percent of Indonesia'€™s entire gross domestic product (GDP). These remittances often provide a lifeline for their families in the village and help them afford the daily essentials to survive.

The journey that Indonesia'€™s migrant workers take is not easy, usually involving heavy recruitment and transportation fees charged by placement agencies and brokers and employment contracts that offer little protection.

Some agencies may be official and legally licensed '€” providing official working visas '€” while others offer an unlicensed and unregulated gateway to employment in the informal economy.

Money and documents are handed over and entrusted to these agencies with the hope that they will deliver on their promises.

If they avoid being conned and duped along the way by crooked agents and corrupt officials, these migrant workers then arrive in cities across Asia and the Middle East where they work as domestic workers and laborers in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Without knowledge of the local area, culture and language, these brave Indonesians make their way in the unknown, in jobs that involve long hours with small compensation, but often more than they would be able to earn back home.

Each year there are horrific stories of the abuse and exploitation suffered by Indonesian migrant workers abroad. Migrant workers suffer exploitation from agents and employers who deceive them about their conditions of work and terms of employment, including the salary they receive and their hours of work.

Workers can also find themselves forced into debt bondage because of excessive and often illegal charges and recruitment fees. Others face abuse at the hands of their employers, but cannot flee because their travel documents and salary are withheld. At the extreme end, there are numerous cases when Indonesian migrant workers have faced physical abuse, sexual violence and even death.

The governments and agencies in the countries where many Indonesian migrant workers are based can play into this abuse with restrictive rights and labor laws.

For example, official regulations that require workers to obtain consent from employers to apply for exit permits from the country, meaning that if their employers do not provide these permissions, workers are essentially trapped in these host countries and forced to work involuntarily.

Across a number of countries, there are numerous rules and regulations that restrict workers'€™ rights and make filing complaints against employers and access to legal support extremely challenging.

A report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) highlights how gaps in national labor laws in a number of Middle Eastern countries either partially or completely exclude migrant domestic workers. To make matters worse, rights of recourse often only apply to migrant workers who are '€œofficially'€ employed. Many Indonesian migrant workers are of course '€˜unofficial'€™, with even less protections.

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has recently stated that he wants to end Indonesian domestic workers going abroad, citing abuse and poor treatment, and how he felt ashamed when discussing the topic in bilateral meetings. The government has stated its desire to improve the safety of migrant workers and phase out and restrict domestic workers from working in foreign countries.

Further restrictions, however, do not tackle the underlying problems with migrant worker abuse. An estimated 1.8 million are already undocumented and unofficial, making them especially vulnerable. The true figure is likely to be far higher. A policy that attempts to curtail domestic workers from working abroad may in fact have the unintended consequence of making the situation worse, as more domestic workers head aboard unofficially, undocumented and unprotected.

Making the system easier for Indonesians to seek and find official and regulated work overseas, especially in their local communities, would likely be more effective than a reactionary policy.

Indonesia also needs to do more to promote and protect the rights of Indonesians already working abroad. Providing visible and active government support, for Indonesian workers already in these destination countries, is what counts for them.

In the run up to International Labor Day on May 1, the contribution of Indonesia'€™s migrant workers must not be forgotten.

Their sacrifice, hard work and determination to better themselves and the welfare of their families are heroic, but the challenges they face and the huge contributions they make to Indonesia, often underappreciated.

More still needs to be done to provide Indonesia'€™s migrant workers with the safety, dignity and representation they deserve.

The author is a writer in Jakarta.

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