The Plight of Indonesia’s Women Migrant Workers

Tullia Norton[1]

Nora, a 23-year-old Indonesian woman, decided to become a migrant worker to make her family happy and improve their economic situation. She believed she might have new experiences, which were unavailable to her in her rural home of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island with a largely agricultural economy that experiences frequent droughts, resulting in many leaving to find work overseas. She left without telling her family and was sent by a private recruitment agency to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in February, 2016.

Becoming a migrant worker has long been one of the only options for women from rural areas in Indonesia seeking to support their family. Often they may only have a primary school education, so that there are limited opportunities for them to find work at home, and they are forced to leave their family and seek work overseas through private agencies. Many women migrant workers come from areas in Indonesia which have experienced land grabbing and land conversion, which robs the community of their agricultural land and other sources of income. In many places in Indonesia, such as Sumbawa, there is also a cultural expectation placed on women that they will become migrant workers to support their family, and a family may even be given a fee by recruitment agencies in exchange for their wife or daughter agreeing to work abroad. Though this fee is often deducted from the woman’s wage once she begins work, it further increases the pressure on a woman to agree to become a migrant worker.

The majority of these women become domestic workers, due to a patriarchal ideology which dictates that women belong in the domestic sphere. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence and abuse because they work in private homes, leaving them isolated and unable to form support networks. Often they are recruited by someone who is known to them and whom they trust, for example a community leader or chief, on behalf of a private agency, who facilitates their placement overseas. They undergo training, often at their own cost, so that they begin work already heavily in debt. The training may cover language and domestic skills, but rarely includes information about the woman’s rights or how she might access help if things go wrong.

The private agencies that recruit women and place them overseas, known in Indonesia as Perusahaan Penyalur Tenaga Kerja Indonesia Swasta (PPTKIS), are operated solely for the purpose of making a profit from the exploitation of these women. The Indonesian government is responsible for the overseas placement of workers that it considers “formal”, which includes workers in male-dominated fields such as construction. However, domestic work, which is considered “informal”, is facilitated only by private agencies. This dichotomy stems from the perceived separation between employment in the public sphere, which is the domain of men, and the private sphere. It results in a system which discriminates against women, the majority of whom are employed in “informal” work. In this system, women are much more vulnerable to exploitation during all stages of the migration process, as they are viewed only as an economic commodity by the PPTKIS. From their initial recruitment they are lured into employment with false promises; through the duration of their employment they are at risk of violence, overwork, and underpayment, and even on their return to Indonesia, they are exploited by immigration officials and money exchange agencies.

Nora was given falsified documents and a false name, easily obtained by the recruitment agencies through bribery of corrupt immigration officials, so that she could travel without her family’s permission. In Indonesia, women require the permission of their father, or husband if they are married, in order to work abroad. Nora’s family did not know where she was for ten months. In December 2016, Nora managed to contact her Aunt, and described her terrible situation. She was frequently being tortured by her employer, but she was afraid to run away as she knew he had many friends around the apartment. Nora’s Aunt brought her case to Solidaritas Perempuan (SP), a women’s rights organization based in Indonesia, and the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers (BNP2TKI) and asked for help to bring her home. She returned home in February 2017 and her case against the private recruitment agency who trafficked her is still ongoing.

While there are laws in place in Indonesia which aim to protect domestic workers, these laws in fact curtail their rights to live and work as they choose by focusing on preventing women from working overseas, rather than ensuring that their rights are protected and they can work safely and without exploitation. They also increase the likelihood of domestic workers being placed overseas through unofficial channels, reducing their access to information and making them even more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. For example, the Indonesian Government’s Roadmap Zero Domestic Workers 2017 Policy aims to end the export of Indonesian domestic workers completely. One of the steps to achieving this was the ban placed by the Indonesian Government in May 2015 on sending domestic workers to the Middle East. This was in recognition of the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where women are subject to the kafala system. This sponsorship system gives an employer considerable power and control over the migrant worker, and has been described as a system of modern slavery.

Despite the ban, Indonesian domestic workers like Nora continue to be placed in the Middle East. These workers are recruited through dishonest means, often being told by agents that the ban is lifted, or being lied to about their destination country, so that they are unaware that they are being placed overseas illegally. As a result of this, they may be subject to trafficking, being held captive in training facilities or their workplace, and being underpaid and exploited. According to Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia (SBMI), the migrant workers trade union, many women are told that they will work for a cleaning service, but instead they are placed in a private home. Often they may be transferred to a different employer every two or three months, so that the agency can maximize profit by charging each employer a large fee. This results in further vulnerability to abuse and exploitation, as an employer does not need to think about the long-term wellbeing of the woman, but only wishes to get the most value for the money they have paid.

Half of the cases that Solidaritas Perempuan (SP) received in 2017 were from Saudi Arabia, one of the destination countries banned by the Indonesian government, and according to SP, this is still one of the most common destination countries for domestic workers. There are also still Indonesian domestic workers in Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Oman, all countries which have been banned. SBMI and SP have seen an increase in cases of trafficking to the Middle East since the ban in 2015. Both SP and SBMI believe the solution is not to restrict women’s ability to work overseas legally, but to enforce the protection of their rights and form binding bilateral agreements with destination countries to ensure that the workers have access to justice.

Lilis also wanted to help her family by becoming a migrant worker. She was also recruited after the Middle East ban, in September of 2016. She was promised a large salary by a private agent and she was given a letter of recruitment issued by the BNP2TKI and the Office of the Ministry of Manpower, which stated that she would be placed in Abu Dhabi. However, when she arrived in Jakarta in preparation for going abroad, she found out she was going to be sent to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for which no letter had been issued. She was delivered by the agency to her first employer in November, where she was given only two hours of rest per night, between 2am and 4am. She also suffered burns at the hands of her employer. She received no wages. When she went back to the agency after eleven days, she was placed with another employer, where she worked for two months, receiving no wages and also being sexually assaulted and suffering from attempted rape. After being placed with a third employer, Lilis was finally released from her employment in August 2017. She was able to return to Sumbawa where her husband had reported her case to the Department of Manpower and Transmigration.

Under Indonesia’s Law No. 21 2007 Combating the Crime of People Trafficking it seems clear that Lilis was a victim of human trafficking, which includes but is not limited to, the recruitment, transport and delivery of a person with the use of fraud for the purpose of exploitation. The agency used fraud to induce Lilis, deceiving her about her destination and her salary. She was certainly exploited, being forced to work long hours without pay, and also suffering from physical and sexual violence. Despite the crimes committed against Lilis, her case remains unresolved and she has not received any financial compensation or treatment for the injuries she suffered, though this is also required under the anti-trafficking law.

It is unlawful to take an Indonesian citizen from Indonesia for the purposes of being exploited in a foreign country, with a maximum prison sentence of up to 15 years. However, in practice it is very difficult to prosecute private recruitment agencies that profit from the trafficking of women. As the anti-trafficking law is relatively recent, many police, prosecutors and judges are unfamiliar with the law, and interpret the definitions of trafficking and exploitation narrowly. In many cases, a woman may have signed a document agreeing to be sent overseas, and though she may have done so under economic pressure and after being given false information about the nature of work and salary, this is considered in the agencies’ favour in court. Even if there is a prosecution, often it is only of an individual who was involved, and the agency itself can continue to operate. The victim is also left without any compensation. Usually the only outcome available for a victim of trafficking is to be returned home to Indonesia.

In order to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of Indonesian women like Nora and Lilis, the government must increase efforts to enforce existing laws that aim to protect migrant workers and prosecute those guilty of human trafficking. They should put an end to discriminatory policies that classify women migrant workers as “informal”, and that aim to reduce the number of migrant domestic workers going overseas, which leave women who are under significant cultural and economic pressure no choice but to place their trust in recruitment agencies who aim to exploit them for profit without regard to their dignity and humanity. Simply banning women from going overseas to work does not address the root causes of the issue, which are development policies focusing only on economic growth, characterized by land grabbing, forced evictions and mass exploitation and destruction of natural resources. These policies rob women and their communities of their livelihoods, and leave women with the burden of providing for their family through migrant work. Women need to be given sovereignty over their land and resources, and be empowered through education to make decisions for the benefit of themselves and their family, so that becoming a migrant worker is truly a choice, and not the only option.

[1] Writer is a student of Bachelor of Laws and International Studies at Deakin University

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