Thursday, July 12, 2007

Our migrant workers, heroes or villains?

The Jakarta Post
Opinion and Editorial - May 15, 2007

Ardimas Sasdi, Kuala Lumpur

Unless there's a definitive shift in the policy and view of the government and the public in general, the fate of millions of Indonesians working as migrant workers in foreign countries will remain disheartening.

We will continue to read and hear saddening stories in the media of our workers who are treated unfairly or inhumanly by their employers and law enforcers.

On the other hand, the employers, who are mostly better educated than the workers and knowledgeable about the law, usually go unpunished for their guilt. Why? Most of the migrant workers have little education and are not knowledgeable about labor laws. Some of them are illiterate, so they can be easily exploited by their employers, who sometimes cooperate with local police.

The majority of the around 2 million Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Singapore work in the informal sector. Men usually work as laborers in construction companies, palm oil plantations and cleaning services, while women mostly work as maids. In the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur many Indonesians work as shop keepers or attendants at restaurants.

The departures of these migrant workers from their hometowns in Indonesia to foreign countries are organized by private employment agencies, which are meant to be registered with the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry. Many of them are legal and have received training on the job they have to do, on language and the culture of the countries where they send people to work.

But quite a large number of the migrants, especially those working in Malaysia, are illegal and do not receive proper training before their departures. These workers enter Malaysia, which has a long sea border with Indonesia, stealthily, with the help of syndicates in Indonesia and Malaysia who cooperate with their future employers in Malaysia.

Most of the illegal migrants come to Malaysia by boat at night and are dropped in the sea around 100 meters from the seashore as the syndicates are afraid of being arrested by Malaysian patrol police. So these immigrants have to swim in chest-deep water to reach land in the country famous for its Petronas Twin Towers.

In Malaysia, according to the workers and Indonesians studying at Malaysian universities, these migrant workers live with legal migrant workers in makeshift temporary shelters, usually with people from their native provinces who have been in Malaysia for some time. Many of them mingle and live with people from their hometowns, forming enclaves based on their ethnic groups in Indonesia. Madurese, for example, tend to live with Madurese and people from Nusa Tenggara live with their colleagues from the same area.

Such a tradition has its own pluses and minuses. The positive aspect is they can help each other in times of happiness and difficulty, while the negative is the concentration of such a large number of people from one area tends to encourage exclusiveness and discourage socialization.

Worse, some are hot tempered and very fanatic about their ethnicity, so it is usual to hear that Indonesian workers in Malaysia have been involved in a brawl due to trivial causes. The frequent brawls tarnish the image of all Indonesians, who are known as "Indons" -- a derogatory term for Indonesian workers disliked by Indonesians -- and a new problem for Malaysian police.

The complaints of the workers are corroborated by Indonesian students, who say that the problem of Indonesian workers in Malaysia is very complex. Many of them are known as loyal and hard workers, but are often exploited by their Malaysian employers, who do not pay their salaries for months. When they ask for their salaries the Malaysian employers report the workers to the police, who then come to the scene and make indiscriminate arrests.

"In general public services in Malaysia are good, but not the police. The force has been infiltrated by the virus of corruption," said an Indonesian university student, adding that he and his friends had been fined for unclear reasons by Malaysian police who were willing to settle the matter for 10 Malaysian ringgit (US$3).

That the Malaysian police force is corrupt like Indonesia's is known to many and this is work for the Malaysian government to deal with. But the need to protect our migrant workers is ours even though we could ask for help from Kuala Lumpur on how to solve these matters as both the sender and receiver need these workers.

The job of protecting our migrant workers in foreign countries needs to involve many parties but the biggest task lies on the shoulders of our embassies, as the legitimate representatives of our government abroad. There are around two million migrant workers from Indonesia who work in foreign countries. Kompas daily reported these workers sent US$1.028 billion or Rp 9 trillion in remittances back home in 2002.

But the contribution of the migrant workers is not only in the form of the money they earn. Their employment in foreign countries has lessened the burden of the government in employment and in the provision of staple foods and services in transportation, education and many others.

The government is aware of the significant contribution of the migrant workers and has placed several labor attaches in countries where there are many migrant workers, but in the eyes of workers and students these civil servants have not been doing enough compared to their colleagues in the Philippines, another major exporter of workers.

The task of protecting the interests of migrant workers is indeed big and must begin at home. The key to doing this is to change our views and policies on migrant workers -- are they the heroes or villains?

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post. He can contacted at


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