Migrant workers: remittances are necessary, welfare is ignored

(illustration: IO/Rudraksha)

IO, Jakarta – With the coming of March, the public is again shocked to learn of violence suffered by an Indonesian Migrant Worker (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia – “TKI”) from Tri Wahyuni (35), from Blitar, East Java. She was abused by her employer in Hong Kong. This is a very sad occurrence, because it came soon after the death of a TKI from East Nusa Tenggara, Adelina Lisao, in Malaysia, as a result of her employer’s abuse. These two cases are merely the tip of the iceberg in the acute problems relating to TKI.

Their horrific story is exactly what we do not expect in view of their positive contribution to their state and nation, while Article 27 (2) of our own Constitution of 1945 states that “All citizens have the right to a decent and human occupation and livelihood.”

The World Bank records remittances contributed from TKI to their home country in 2016 at US$ 8.9 billion, or equal to Rp 118 trillion. This matches 1% of Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Total remittances as of August 2017 were US$ 5.81 billion, or equal to Rp 77.577 trillion. The reduced level of remittances is in line with the temporary suspension of informal TKI workers to the Middle East. With this rate of income, the World Bank calculated that TKIs are able to alleviate 28% of household poverty.

Still, according to the World Bank, there are now 9 million Indonesian citizens working abroad, equal to 7% of the total Indonesian work force. In terms of distribution, about 55% TKI work in Malaysia, 13% in Saudi Arabia, 10% in Taiwan, 6% in Hong Kong, 5% in Singapore, and the remainder in other countries.

Distribution by occupation is: 32% as household help or nannies, 19% as agricultural workers, 18% as construction workers, 8% as factory workers, 6% as caretakers of the elderly, 4% of shop/restaurant/hotel workers, 2% as chauffeurs, and 0.5% as cruise ship staff.

Portrait of a TKI
According to Anis Hidayah, Head of CARE Center for Research and Migration Studies, our migrant workers are systematically made vulnerable against human right violations, because they are viewed as commodities and merchandise. “The Adelina case, then the case of TKI in Hong Kong that went viral – they are actually only the tip of the iceberg for what migrant workers face. We record that in any random day, 5 workers die, 5 suffer physical and/or sexual abuse, they get unpaid, and a majority of them work more than 18 hours a day,” Anis said to the Independent Observer.

Fully 60%-70% of the 9 million TKI abroad are women. They decided to go abroad to raise their standard of living. Unfortunately, these women going abroad to work already have issues before they leave: for example, they are often victims of household violence, child marriage, female impoverishment and marginalization.

“They already have problems, but they only continue carrying their problems with them when they go to another country. This gets worse, because they have knowledge and their agencies are simply not concerned. Before being sent away, they should already possess skills, knowledge, awareness and information. Well, nobody bothers to impart those vital facts to them at all. Think about it: even sending goods requires an address and accountability; this is sending off a human being; shouldn’t the rules be more rigid? For example, can they communicate, can they get something to eat or not. We’re actually treating people worse than goods,” Anis said morosely.

Bobi Anwar Ma’arif, Secretary General of the Union of Migrant Workers of Indonesia, corroborates the statement that migrant workers are generally unskilled. “The majority of TKI are unskilled women. This makes them vulnerable to violence,” he said. Therefore, he suggested that improving the lot of migrant workers must start from the source, i.e. through education and training. “If we can fix this, I’m sure that there will be many fewer cases of such sad treatment of our TKI,” he said.

In a similar vein, Putih Sari, Member of Commission IX of DPR RI, states that government regulation is not strict enough. “Let’s not talk about treatment in the country of placement, even domestically the implementation of laws is poor. Problems already start with the documentation of these migrant workers. Suspension does not stop violence, does not solve the cases our brethren and sisters face, but ironically increases the number of illegal workers. This is a sorry state of affairs,” said Putih.

Putih further stated that Regional Governments must educate people and provide them with sufficient skills. “Our workers have minimal competence, especially in terms of language. Training is necessary, but unfortunately most training sessions are held as a mere formality, while we should be able to see whether they are ready to be sent off or not,” she said.

As a People’s Representative, Putih wishes for Regional Governments to pay full attention to the migrant worker issue. However, in the field, Putih notes that the very Regional Governments in the regions that are TKI bases do not accord sufficient attention to this. Regents and governors need to pass strong regulations and enforce them. “If the Government participates, we can guide this from document administration to competence training, because there are many training agencies,” she said.

Bobi pointed out that in Law No. 39 year 2004 concerning the Placement and Protection of TKI Abroad, the Government has placed the responsibility in the hands of the migrant foreign agencies. Unfortunately, these agencies are unwilling to construct branch offices in the regions due to large operational costs. They ended up using brokers to recruit their workers for them. They only think of what they are doing as a business, so they only care about their profit, so there is much misinformation about migrant workers around (including document falsification).

Sringatin, Chairwoman of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union in Hong Kong, gave a clear statement about the skill of migrant workers. She found that pre-departure comprehension is minimal: everything is passed over to the Indonesian Migrant Worker Service Companies (Perusahaan Jasa Tenaga Kerja Indonesia – “PJTKI”) and foreign agencies. Generally, Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong pick up skills only after they start working, because the lessons that they had at the PJTKI rarely match the jobs they face.

“There is very little important information on the rights of workers, laws in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and understanding of culture and work safety in the country of placement. Even worse, we can even say that they know absolutely nothing. Training and guidance abroad are also left in the hands of agencies. Migrant workers don’t dare to stand up against the violations that they suffer, because existing regulations, both from the Indonesian Government and the Hong Kong Government, do not protect them. This is why the migrant worker issue is a persistent one,” she said spiritedly.

“Skills improvement must be adjusted according to the needs of the entrepreneur or future employer. For example, migrant workers who work in factories generally obtain skills when they arrive in the country of placement, or when they start to work in the factory. For migrant household help, the main thing they should acquire is language, but special skills must still be adjusted to employer needs. Well, here the Indonesian government leaves the training to PJTKIs, who do not differentiate between educational standards. Language training, which is a core necessity for migrant workers to master, is handled by non-professionals. Other than language, household help must also understand the laws and culture of their country of placement. These 3 basic things are never really provided to migrant workers. This is why many migrant workers do not understand what their employer wants, and they cannot communicate properly. This miscommunication is the root of all other issues,” he added.

Maxixe Mantofa, PR Officer of Association of Indonesian Migrant Worker Placement Enterprises (Asosiasi Perusahaan Penempatan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia – “ASPATAKI”), said that 68% of our workers are only elementary school and junior high school graduates. Therefore, they need to take a longer period of training in order to master certain skills. Other than linguistic capabilities, Maxixe believes that another important thing is mental strength. “So they have fighting capacity,” he said.

Modern Slavery
According to the records of the Walk Free Foundation, Indonesia is in the Top 10 of the Global Slavery Index 2016, with a total number of 736,100 forced workers, or 0.28% the total world population, living in conditions of “modern slavery”.

Anis said that the increased number is caused by the absence of protective policies. The State’s response is more one of reaction, and the mitigation does not even include victim rehabilitation. “So they only got repatriated, while they still have to deal with the trauma when they get home. How do we deal with rehabilitation issues? What about psychological rehabilitation, and reputational rehabilitation in case of wrongful information? There are many cases of human trafficking where the victim is labeled a “sex worker” in various media. Rehabilitation of psychological trauma and reputation is practically non-existent,” she said. “This is the cause of our poor compatriots who were victims of sexual abuse in the Middle East – they get put in stocks in Sukabumi, because their families have no other option,” she said sadly.

Within her 20 years’ experience with migrant workers, Anis note that only very few of them actually succeed, even though all migrant workers leave their country to improve their fate. “In fact, anyone who gets lucky and prosperous, whose life improves, is pretty much a rarity. They are mostly lucky, not because they are covered by the country. They happen to meet nice employers, it’s just good fortune, you can say it’s about fate. Not because our country protects them, not because our system protects them, or respects human rights. With this system, there is nothing but trouble,” she said.

Anis admits that the complexities of the TKI issue arise because not only because they face countries as institutions, but also capital. “This is a huge employment market – it involves many investors, so we have to face these too. Migration business is close to human trafficking, drugs, and even worse crimes like extremism and terrorism,” she said.

Foreign Workers
According to data from Statistics Indonesia (Badan Pusat Statistik – “BPS”) as of August 2017, unemployment was recorded at 7.04 million. The Government is only able to provide employment for 4 million people. “This means that 3 million people cannot get access to employment. So they are forced to leave the country, because there is no other choice,” Anis said. “Government official data states that 400 thousand people work abroad every year, but we found that the actual number nearly doubled, at 900 thousand to 1 million people,” she said.

Anis admits that employment opportunities in Indonesia are limited, and the Government has problems relating to employment. For TKI alone, the annual increase of the number of people who work abroad is 10%-20%.

Amidst this crisis of employment, there are rumors that Chinese workers are flooding into Indonesia. Bobi confirms this: “According to information from worker friends and the findings of DPR, right now there are 1 million Chinese workers secretly entering Indonesia.” The law says that foreign workers may work in Indonesia, but only if they are highly-skilled. But leaks happen. So the incoming flood of foreign workers is killing our own,” Bobi said.

Similarly, Putih confirms the presence of Chinese workers in Indonesia. She even saw them herself when she paid a work visit to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. “I went on a Commission IX work visit to Kendari. The town was like Little China, because all shops and stalls around the factories speak Chinese,” she said.

Putih understands that foreign workers come because of a Government-to-Government agreement. “We understand that when one country wants to invest in another, they want security, but we also have rules – we should make it a bargaining point. They may bring in their own workers, but only for higher levels, such as managers or other highly-skilled positions. Don’t bring in ordinary workers. We have found several cases that we reported to the Ministry of Labor, that the work agreements say that the foreign workers will work as “a”, “b”, or “c”, but in fact they don’t work as per their employment contracts. So workers are flown in because of the G-to-G “sweetheart” agreement. It should be for specific (higher) levels only, while lower levels should be reserved for our workers instead,” she said.

Putih further noted that the Regional Government has instructed the foreign workers to try to fit into the local community. However, concerns of cultural differences that relate to national sovereignty occur. “I happened to be visiting Kendari, but I’ve also got reports of something similar occurring in other regions, such as Karawang. So some companies employ Chinese workers, while the job type can be done by our workers. Immigration must also be strict, because China is visa-free, and there is a much higher increase in 2017,” said the politician from Gerindra Party.

The Ministry of Labor states that the current number of foreign migrant workers (tenaga kerja asing – “TKA”) is 126 thousand people, or increased 69.85% from the number in late 2016, at 74,813. The majority of these workers come from China. The Minister of Labor, Hanif Dhakiri, said that apart from China, many foreign workers originate from Japan, the United States, and Singapore. Despite the fast-rising numbers, the Government still wishes to ease the entry of professional TKAs, who are necessary for some sectors.  Hanif reiterates that the easing of TKA permit is only for expert workers. He guarantees that laborers and other types of work that Indonesian citizens (Warga Negara Indonesia – “WNI”) can easily do by themselves will remain protected. However, he did not mention the types of work that TKA can easily do.

Government Presence
Vice Chairman of Commission IX of DPR RI, Pius Lustrilanang, said that many TKI who suffer violence depart without undergoing clear procedures. Therefore, the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Badan Nasional Penempatan dan Perlindungan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia – “BNP2TKI”) aggressively disseminates information on Prevention of Non-procedural TKI throughout Indonesia, especially in TKI-based regions such as Java, Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, and West Nusa Tenggara Barat. BNP2TKI also holds training sessions for TKIs departing the country, such as household work skills. Those who are going to work in companies are given basic administrative skills, so that they can match the standards. This training is held in the region of origin.

The Draft Law concerning the Protection of Migrant Workers was finally validated as Law Number 18 year 2017, covering Protection of Indonesia Migrant Workers. “The new Law no longer places Indonesia migrant workers as objects, but more as subjects. The State only facilitates with integrated services in synergy with stakeholders,” Pius said.

According to Anis, however, the various TKI issues can be resolved with the commitment of the State with constitutional guarantee. “The State must start with protective policies; the governance must be fixed. We’ve taken the first step with the enactment of Law No 18. The spirit of the new law encourages the State to participate more, so that the migrant workers depart free from debt, secure, and are not hit with several levels of problems at once,” she said. Anis further admits that the passivity of Regional Governments is a special problem, while it needs serious effort to ensure that Regional Government can be entrusted with mandates relating to systems, governance and commitment.

Bobi adds that the validation of Law No. 18/2017 means that education and training are now the Government’s responsibility. The Government must prepare Work Training Agencies (Balai Latihan Kerja – “BLK”), create a curriculum, and regulate all other processes all the way to certification. “The Governments have their own roles to play, starting from the central, provincial, regency, to village government. Everybody has their own job duties. The village government must now take its place as the front guard for providing information services, taking candidate data, and empowering migrant workers,” he said.

In order to reduce the variability of TKI issues, Maxixe Mantofa suggests that the Government tighten up the rules, to make sure that departing TKI come from official companies. “So far we find that going through official channels takes a long time; the process is harder than if going through illegal channels. In fact, official companies generally give them sufficiently long training to ensure that they have sufficient skills to minimize miscommunication between employers and workers,” he said. Maxixe also hopes the Government will disseminate TKI necessary information even to the remote corners of the nation. “So both do it together, not just private parties,” he said.

Sringatin said that the Government is present, but not active enough to resolve the root of migrant worker issues. “The Government still maintains useless rules that caught migrant workers in unnecessary violations. For example, the Indonesian government rules that migrant worker candidates and migrant workers must be part of an Indonesian Migrant Worker Service Company (PJTKI) or an agency; it’s a lifelong bond. Even for migrant workers who already made it abroad, if they have not finished 2 years’ employment with the same employer, they cannot move agencies or find new employers easily, because the rules prevent them for moving. Even though the regulation is unwritten, we find that many migrant workers who have not finished their contracts cannot change agencies,” she said.

Therefore, Sringatin hopes that the Government will generate domestic job opportunities with sufficient pay to cover needs in Indonesia. In this way, women no longer need to work abroad and leave their husbands, children, and families. The impact of having women go as migrant workers is not just physical and mental for the migrant workers themselves, but there is also a social impact on husbands, children, and families in particular, and the community in general.

“When the Government cannot resolve poverty and provide jobs, we can at least hope that it will acknowledge us as workers and not just abandon us to our fates, handed over to private parties (PJTKI, agencies, insurance), or to the mercy of the country of placement. The Government so far does not resolve migrant worker issues by providing protection that the migrant workers and their family members want and need,” she complained.

(Dessy Aipipidely)