Wed, 24 Dec 2003

Overseas employment slavery for many migrant workers

Ridwan Max Sijabat The Jakarta Post Jakarta

How tragic and terrible has been the violence against a great number of Indonesian women employed overseas this year! Not only were they harassed, physically abused or even raped but were also sent home without proper payment or traded from one employer to another.

Many women workers who had just arrived home from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia and Singapore said how they were insulted and beaten if they made mistakes in performing their daily tasks, how they had to work overtime without extra pay, how they were sexually harassed or raped by their male employers or their relatives and how they were physically attacked by their female employers after they had been forced to have sex with their male employers. Behind "the success story" of most migrant workers, many have to endure brutality and undergo a form of slavery to gain 600 riyal per month in Saudi Arabia, or 300 ringgit in Malaysia.

The Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Kopbumi) in Jakarta recorded 76 workers who died or were killed during their employment between January and September 2003, while the Pancakarsa Foundation, a non-governmental organization handling troubled migrant workers in West Nusa Tenggara, put the figure at 135. Both also made an inventory and provided legal advocacy for hundreds of other workers who were physically abused, raped or not paid during their employment.

The figures are relatively small when compared with the total 1.5 million Indonesians employed overseas, but from a human rights and multilateral perspective, the physical abuse and rapes were really serious crimes that merit being brought before the International Court of Justice.

The increase in physical abuse and rape has, in addition, both affected Indonesia's bargaining power in the labor market and tarnished its image abroad.

Foreign countries where Indonesian workers are employed have ignored the increasing protests at abuses of workers, saying that the cases would not affect their bilateral ties with Indonesia. The Saudi Arabian government has turned a blind eye to the increasing abuse of Indonesian workers in that country and, instead, placed stronger emphasis on the bilateral ties between two predominantly Muslim countries. Malaysia, which has been flooded with illegal workers from Indonesia, has been reluctant to sign the three proposed memorandums of understanding to provide protection for Indonesian workers. The Malaysian government's reluctance, it seems, has something to do with the fact that despite harsher immigration legislation, Indonesians will continue to enter Malaysia because of the explosion in unemployment within Indonesia.

Despite frequent violations, Hong Kong and Singapore are the only two countries to have implemented regulations on employment of foreign workers in the informal sector. Other countries employing Indonesian workers in this sector are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Oman and Egypt.

But, of course, it looks unfair to blame foreign countries for the grievances of Indonesian migrant workers, as the workers are often mistreated before their departure overseas and again upon their arrival home.

Many workers have had to sell assets or have borrowed money at high interest from loan sharks to finance their trip overseas, as well as their recruitment and training fees and passport, via labor agencies. Many workers are fleeced when applying for immigration documents and have been subject to inhumane treatment when undergoing training, while others are trafficked to Batam and Tanjungpinang in Riau and employed as sex workers before being sent to the Malaysian peninsula.

Unlike Philippine migrant workers who are given red-carpet treatment upon their arrival home, Indonesian workers are trapped by a transportation syndicate at Terminal 3 at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at the end of their Saudi, Malaysian or Garuda flights. Workers have been known to pay Rp 250,000 for a one-way trip to Cianjur, West Java, and Rp 1.5 million to West Nusa Tenggara. Others are forced to change their riyal, ringgit, or Malaysian dollars into Indonesian rupiah by bus drivers at artificially low conversion rates, with those refusing to change their foreign currency being abandoned on their way home.

Who should be blamed for the rampant extortion, abuse and rape of migrant workers? Many blame the government for failing to deal with abuse of workers properly, while others blame the workers themselves, as they are unable to deal with problems of their own making while traveling overseas and during their employment.

Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Jacob Nuwa Wea has blamed labor export agencies, foreign diplomats, the police, immigration officers, transportation companies and regional administrations, which, he said, frequently imposed illegal charges on migrant workers.

"Not only the manpower ministry but many other government departments and agencies are involved in exporting workers," he said, adding that he could not even take action against local manpower and transmigration officers who abused the powers they had under regional autonomy with regard to migrant workers.

The minister has revoked scores of licenses of labor export companies found over the last four months to have violated Ministerial Decree No. 144A/2000 on labor exports.

He said that although procedures for migrant workers had been tightened, many workers would continue to enter foreign countries illegally because of scarce job opportunities at home and higher wage levels overseas.

According to data at the manpower ministry, unemployment has reached more than 40 million.

Foreign diplomats have said they cannot focus on monitoring migrant workers because that is just a small element of their daily task in carrying out their diplomatic mission overseas.

In trying to create good governance, ministers and government agencies can no longer blame one another for the government's failure to regulate and manage the migrant worker issue because that does not address the problem. Relevant authorities should cooperate better to provide improved services and incentives to workers in running the migrant worker program.

In its function as regulator, the government should produce legislation instead of a ministerial decree, to regulate the sending of workers overseas and provide legal protection for migrant workers, as has been demanded by activists, so that all relevant authorities and concerned parties can be asked to show their commitment to strong law enforcement.

"It is bizarre to demand that foreign countries treat our workers humanely while we fail to do it first ourselves," social commentator Halomoan Hutapea said recently.

According to Halomoan, the most basic and important thing the government must do is to make sure that all workers sent abroad can at least speak English so that they can communicate with people should problems develop, either on their way overseas or during their employment.

"Second, workers must be skilled in doing their jobs, even though they may be employed as domestic helpers, baby sitters or shop attendants overseas," he said, adding that most instances of labor abuse occurred because the workers involved were unskilled.

He added that most Indonesian workers employed in the informal sector were elementary school graduates or dropouts, and most were sent overseas without undergoing proper training beforehand.

============================= 1. Eyebox: Indonesia is in an emergency state in view of increasing violence against Indonesians working overseas, and is therefore in dire need of legislation to regulate the sending of workers overseas and to provide legal protection for migrant workers, says Kopbumi coordinator Wahyu Susilo. 2. 2003 data on labor export and government remittance. =================================================================