Wed, 04 Sep 2002


End inaction of Indonesian government on migrant issue

Prompt settlement of the current migrant worker problem is possible as long as it is not treated as a political commodity, says anthropologist M. Arif Nasution who has conducted research on migrant workers. Soon to be installed as professor at North Sumatra University, he spoke to The Jakarta Post's correspondent Apriadi Gunawan in Medan. An excerpt of the interview follows:

Question: What were the significant results of your research?

Answer: The research was funded by the Malaysian government when I was teaching at the Universitas Kebangsaan Malaysia from 1992 to 1997. The significant result was that Malaysia is indeed heavily dependent on Indonesian workers, particularly in the construction and plantation sectors. Then there are the many hours of unpaid work, a contribution to Malaysia free of charge.

The Malaysian government knows that workers from Indonesia are good, hardworking and easy to fool. It is simply not possible to replace such a large, hardworking labor force. Our workers are patient, cheap and abundant. If all our workers leave Malaysia its economy could go into decline.

The unequal economic position between the two countries is not necessarily the main reason why Indonesians end up in Malaysia; it is more to do with the role of labor supply agents, brokers and (prospective employers) in Malaysia. But what's the main reason why Indonesians go there?

Mostly, economic necessity, particularly in the crisis. But they initially did not have a clue where to go, and so placed themselves in the hands of brokers who offered to send them abroad.

Brunei, Saudi Arabia and other countries are more attractive. But workers clearly have no information on which to make a choice of destination. Even the cultural and language similarities are not a significant factor compared with their access to Malaysia through brokers, both illegally or legally.

This is similar to how Chinese and Indians were earlier taken to Malaysia, at the initiative of the colonial government. What about the syndicates involved?

Not only businesspeople are involved but also the (Indonesian and Malaysian) officials who use brokers that work for them. This happened in the period of earlier labor ministers (in the 1980s) -- Sudomo, Abdul Latief -- until now.

It's mostly officials that own the labor supply firms -- so it's officials who often initiate the illegal process.

Malaysian bureaucrats are also involved in providing transportation, even taking workers up to the shelters near the mangrove forests. Such Malaysians earn 50 ringgit for each Indonesian worker they can supply. Residents also benefit from providing shelter for the Indonesians.

The Malaysian government is not fair as it never penalized its own residents (a new law now punishes illegal workers, brokers and also those hiding the workers). It only managed to deal with suppliers of illegal workers. Which areas in Indonesia send the most illegal workers?

We must first differentiate the types of illegal workers. There are workers who immediately become illegal, who are "sold" by brokers operating both illegally or legally.

Then there are others who entered legally but became illegal during their stay in Malaysia. They might have thrown their passport and other documents away because of the red tape involved. Employers don't want this (fuss) either.

Those who entered illegally are mostly from East Java and (East and West) Nusa Tenggara. About 60 percent of illegal workers from Sumatra and East Java entered the country through peninsular Malaysia or the western part. Illegal workers from Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Kalimantan mostly enter through Serawak and Sabah. Those from East Java usually go to Jakarta first, then take a bus to North Sumatra or straight to Riau.

Then they are taken across the sea to Johor Baru, Port Klang, Malaka and other places. They usually use tongkang (traditional wooden boats). They disembark before the destination port and enter the streams where water reaches a man's waist, thus escaping the eye of the patrols. Then they walk along the swamps for about five kilometers to shelters where locals live.

Which sector employs the most illegal workers?

About half are in construction, the remainder in plantations, mainly in the cocoa, rubber and oil palm sectors. Agriculture is the easiest sector to enter (once a job seeker has reached Malaysia) as the locations are less visible to officials.

Workers usually seek information and then move to construction. They are usually men, while the women seek domestic or other work.

Didn't the Indonesian government ever anticipate Malaysia's tough response toward illegal workers?

Diplomacy to help the workers has been limited to meaningless talk. The government has never been serious; it even seems that the government wants to legalize this process. Warships have been sent to bring the workers home while the government has closed its eyes to the tongkang carrying our workers back to Malaysia.

Our main weakness is the absence of a special department handling the sending of workers overseas (despite) the law refering to the involvement of a number of government offices.

Given the direct relation (of this issue) to providing foreign exchange, why don't we establish a special ministry or department to handle migrant workers? At least, a state office in charge of international labor mobility, as we find in the Philippines, Pakistan and India. What must be done given the current deportation of thousands of illegal workers?

The embassy in Kuala Lumpur must actively provide reports on our workers, legal or illegal, to Jakarta. This was not done despite signs from the Malaysian government that it would deport our workers. The embassy should have given feedback to the government in Jakarta on the actions to be taken prior to deportation.

So the most important thing now is not to politicize the matter on either side. Both countries should view this as a labor issue, which must be settled accordingly.

The methods and decisions taken might contain political elements but they should not become political ends. Each country must respect the other's law. The difficulty now is the political needs (of the government) related to its standing in both the domestic and international stage.

This situation could occur again in two or three years' time. Such a situation is similar to that between Cuba and the U.S. regarding Cuba's workers.