OPINION: The agony of Indonesian migrant workers

Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - The agonies of Indonesian migrant workers will likely continue as the government has repeatedly failed to manage its overseas labour policy.

In Indonesia, international labour migration has been perceived as a meagre issue by the government both before and after independence. At the beginning of the 20th century (1905) the Dutch introduced internal migration policy (emigratie) to resettle the Javanese to Lampung in South Sumatra in attempt to resolve demographic pressures and the declining welfare of Java's population. Since then, internal migration preoccupied the government policy and continued after independence (transmigrasi).

The emphasis on internal migration policy influenced the thinking of the ruling elite, which has resulted in the overlooking of international migration. Compare us to the Philippines, which has a long tradition of international migration, Indonesia has a relatively limited experience of cross-border labour movement.

The Indonesian government recognised the existence of international labour migration around the mid-1980s when the press began to report the abuses experienced by Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

The reaction of the labour minister at the time, Adm. Sudomo the former head of the Command for Security and Public Order (Kopkamtib), is typical of Indonesian bureaucrats; instead of protecting the vulnerable migrant workers, he accused the press of circulating falsified stories and instructed domestic workers not to talk with the press.

Sudomo's attitude to migrant workers three decades ago is no different today. The Indonesian governments, from Soeharto to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, interestingly continue treating overseas labour as a minor issue and perceive the agony of overseas labour as merely an incidental occurrence.

President Yudhoyono on one occasion stated that only 1 per cent of the total overseas migrant workers experienced violence or human right abuses. On a different occasion, House of Representatives speaker Marzuki Alie and head of the special task force created by the president to solve the problem of migrant workers, Maftuh Basyuni, cited the improper behaviour of migrant workers as the source of the problem. Basyuni was a former religious affairs minister and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

There is no doubt that the president and his administration neglect the vulnerability of migrant workers and have been non-committal in improving the protection and security of overseas labour.

Interestingly, amid the ad-hoc and reactionary responses by the ruling elites to the problem of overseas labour, the number of people who cross the state's borders to look for jobs has steadily increased. The flow of labour reflects the high demand of workers in the receiving countries and the surplus of labour at the home countries.

The latest economic surveys (The Jakarta Post, November 5, 2012) indicate that domestic job creation is very low although nationally economic growth is relatively high. The flow of labour also indicates that income disparities between Indonesia and the receiving countries remain high. Regretfully, overseas labour has only been given little attention and never integrated into the macroeconomic policy and overall human resource development planning in Indonesia.

A clear and comprehensive overseas labour policy is a long overdue. The migration industry, which for a long time has been left under the control of private agencies and labour brokers, should be regulated - migrant workers are citizens that should be protected by the state.

The current commodification of migrant workers that allows them to enter the international labour market unprotected should be regarded - not only as a violation of human right principles but more importantly - as a violation of the Indonesian Constitution.

A more detailed view on the current situation and condition of overseas labour is important to avoid over generalisations. The receiving countries of Indonesian migrant workers could be categorised into three groups: worst, medium and good, based on irregularities and human right violations experienced by the migrant workers.

Applying this simple categorisation, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia would be under the worst category; while Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan would be falling into the medium category; and Japan and South Korea would be under the good category.

The Indonesian government must prioritise its overseas labour policy to be in favour of the receiving countries that, by their domestic social, economic and political natures, treat foreign migrant workers well.

Concerted efforts should be developed within and outside the state's borders - and among the ministries, especially the Home Ministry, Law and Human Rights Ministry, Manpower and Transmigration Ministry and Foreign Ministry - if a viable overseas labour policy with a strong protection component will be formulated. In this effort, civil society organisations experienced in advocating for the improvement of migrant workers' human rights conditions should be consulted in the early stages.

The writer is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. The article was first published at The Jakarta Post on November 26, 2012.

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