Indonesia’s Migrant Workers: Dreams and Tears

Working in a afternoon sun, Aneda, a 24-year-old rancher from Indonesia, skilfully binds her blade as she cuts divided during a mature stalks. She gathers a stalks into bundles, and after beats a bundles opposite a wooden board. The altered grains – that she has seen grow over a past 6 months – brief onto a immature net.

“I suspect we don’t get much,” says Aneda, who works a fields alongside her mother. “In one day we competence get 50 trays of threshed rice.”


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April 26, 2014 – Indramayu (Indonesia). Aneda works in a rice margin in a hinterland of Dadap. 

Similar scenes are being enacted all over Aneda’s regency*, Indramyu, a segment of sparse villages and unconstrained rice-fields. The segment produces 3 percent of Indonesia’s rice, a surprisingly poignant volume for a tiny range on a tip of Java.

But detached from providing food, Indramayu nourishes another critical demand: migrant workers.

Each year, organisation and women leave this segment in their hundreds – for places as sundry as Kuwait, Hong Kong and Singapore. Foreign lands offer what home can't – an shun from poverty.

But for migrants like Aneda a dream of success abroad mostly goes awry. In sequence to leave, many take on vast debts during a recruitment and training stage. The debts take years to compensate off and can also set a settlement for exploitative operative conditions: fearful that they will remove their jobs if they complain, many migrants finish adult operative prolonged hours though adequate remuneration and accommodation.

The infancy of Indonesia’s 6.5 million migrants are women, and this organisation is generally exposed to exploitation. Domestic workers are cramped to their places of residence, mostly face denunciation problems with their employers, and suffer few workers’ rights.

According to a ILO, adult to 80 percent of Indonesia’s domestic workers continue isolation, underpayment, prolonged operative hours, forced labor, tellurian trafficking, and violence.

Aneda’s story is not uncommon. Earlier this year, she lived in Singapore as a domestic worker, where she says she was overworked, underpaid, and mistreated. Six months after arriving, and notwithstanding a outrageous debts she took on in sequence to migrate, she asked to be expelled from her contract. She hardly pennyless even.


A shy, sensitively oral woman, Aneda also reveals she is not a initial in her family to work abroad. Four years progressing her sister left in Kuwait where she lived as a domestic worker. To this day, there has been no grave investigation.

Stories like this are never distant from a news. Reports of labor exploitation and impassioned debts are common, with a high suit of problems entrance from a Middle East. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, 7,000 complaints were filed with BNP2TKI, a Indonesian supervision physique charged with a insurance and chain of migrant workers. Most complaints concerned a non-payment of wages, detriment of contact, and discrepancies between betrothed and tangible operative conditions, though there were also 358 cases of earthy abuse during a hands of employers. More than half of all complaints came from Saudi Arabia.

Not all practice are this extreme. The life of a migrant workman can mostly feel like a play and many depends on a laws of horde countries and a employers one receives. Many migrants lapse improved off, with income to build new houses and send their children to university. In 2012, $7.2 billion was sent home in executive remittances.

In some towns, there are even roads famous as “migrant lanes,” rows of houses built with a resources of migrant remittances. Thick with uninformed paint, a houses mount as critical proof, as unapproachable boasts even, that success abroad is possible.

But for all their grandeur, a houses irradiate a tough truth, generally for women like Aneda. For any 5 kilograms of rice she harvests she receives 1 kilogram in payment. Indramayu offers family and security, though too tiny in a approach of opportunity.

Despite her practice of Singapore, however, and notwithstanding her sister’s disappearance in Kuwait, Aneda is dynamic to try her fitness again. “In a future, we wish to go to Taiwan. My crony pronounced a salaries are aloft there. And when my agreement is finished and I’m behind home, we [will] build a new house.”

Crossing a Straits

The upsurge of migrants from Indonesia to Singapore is one of a busiest roving pathways in Southeast Asia. There are now 220,000 domestic workers in a country, a infancy of whom are Indonesian.

With a resources and general standing, amicable workers contend Singapore should be heading light in Asia, a indication of labor family for other countries to follow. But a existence is distant from ideal.

There is no smallest income in a country, and domestic workers accept no kinship representation. Domestic workers are also released from a country’s Employment Act – a cornerstone of labor legislation that grants workers a imperative day off, regulated operative hours, and a right to change employers.

For Jolovan Wham, executive of HOME, a migrants advocacy group, diseased legislation is a base of many problems. He says that if the supervision is critical about improving a provision of a domestic workers, a elemental rider of labor rights are needed.

“Employers have a uneven right to cancel a work permits of their domestic workers – to boot them and repatriate them. There are no avenues of redress, even if a exclusion was a prejudicial dismissal.”

He also pronounced there were many cases of mistreatment. HOME purebred 47 cases of earthy abuse in 2014, as good as 9 cases of passionate harassment. The NGO has also purebred complaints about bad critical conditions, undue income deductions, and horrific cases of food deprivation.

But problems in Singapore are exacerbated by problems in Indonesia. Exploitation is abundant in Indonesian training centers and recruitment agencies, according to Wahyu Susilo of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based NGO, who pronounced that migrants continue to leave home with irrational levels of debt.

Of sold regard are unlicensed brokers – also famous as “sponsors” – who partisan determined migrants from towns and farming villages. While many sponsors reside by a law, behaving what they see as a critical services for job-seekers, Migrant Care says that many sponsors actively mistreat determined migrants. “On many occasions a information women are given is not correct,” says Susilo. “The income is not a same as what was betrothed and a women accept something else. This skip of clarity is a commencement of many problems.”

Migrant Care also says that underage migrants are spasmodic recruited underneath conditions demonstrative of trafficking.

“Their ages are falsified. They are done to compensate vast sums of income and breeze adult trapped in debt. These are workers who, according to ILO, should be operative 8 hours a day, though in existence it’s some-more like 24 hours a day.”

These practices rise in Indonesia given of diseased supervision slip and bad law enforcement, Susilo says, and adds that a supervision urgently indispensable to rise stronger policies to strengthen a migrant population.

A Migrant’s Life

Over a generation of their contracts in Singapore, domestic workers are thankful to live in a chateau of their employers. This is famous as Singapore’s “live-in” law, and is fiercely contested by amicable workers, who contend that a sequence creates women exposed to impassioned operative hours. If there is no approach of withdrawal work, there is no approach of clocking out.

For Tutik, a 38-year-old lady from Semarang, Indonesia, a “live-in-law” is a means of countless problems. She has worked in Singapore given 2012 and for dual and a half years has not had a singular day off. She says she feels stressed and constantly overburdened.


Tutik works full time looking after Izzati (7), in a dusk after propagandize Tutik will collect Izzati adult from a propagandize train that drops her off during her grandparents’ house. 

Tutik’s operative day is an burdensome list of chores. Before anyone wakes, she will be gliding by a house at 5 a.m. – a tiny unit in a residential tower – preparing for a day to come. On some mornings she finds that Izzarti – one of a children she looks after – has crept into her bed. The attribute between a relatives is fraught, Tutik says, and when arguments mangle out a children go to her for comfort.

There are 4 family members in a two-bedroom apartment: the parents, who Tutik has always called “sir” and “mam,” and their daughters Izzarti and Yi Li.

Tutik and Yi Li have been pity a same room for scarcely 3 years.

The family’s day starts during 7 a.m., and by afterwards Tutik will have spotless a house, done breakfast, and prepared a girls for school. Every morning there is a prevalent impulse of disharmony and panic before a family is ready.

There are few pauses in Tutik’s day – and even a pauses are filled with anticipation. Izzarti, whose propagandize day starts after than Yi Li’s, needs to locate a train during noon. In a meantime, groceries need to be bought, garments washed, bedrooms cleaned. Whenever she can, Tutik will perform her prayers as a Muslim.

On many days, and after picking adult Izzarti from school, Tutik goes to a grandmother’s house. There Tutik says she performs a “usual assorted chores: sweeping, vacuuming, mopping.” She also helps out with cooking.

Domestic workers are not ostensible to work during some-more than one chateau underneath Singaporean law, though HOME says this sequence is frequently broken, and according to Tutik this is partial of her bland life.

She has reason this report for a past dual and a half years, and on many nights finishes work around 10 or 11 p.m.

According to her employer, Tutik motionless not to take a day off in sequence to save money. But for Tutik a reasons are some-more complex. While she says that days off are “wasteful,” given they meant mislaid earnings, she also says her “employer doesn’t wish us to take days off; after all, someone’s got to demeanour after a tiny kids.”

And while she is lustful of a children, she also speaks of a problem of caring for them on a full-time basis, as good as her flourishing clarity of stretch from her possess children in Indonesia, whom she texts by phone once or twice a week. While apropos a broker primogenitor for Izzarti and Yi Li in Singapore, she has turn an absent primogenitor for her daughters in Indonesia.

“Of course, we skip my kids, my family, my husband,” she says. “But looking brazen to my children’s future, it is my obligation. It’s my possess shortcoming as a parent.”

Debt and Doubt

As with many other migrants, that clarity of shortcoming sustains Tutik by prolonged durations of debt and doubt. She says it took her 8 months of work before her group stopped holding income deductions. “After that 8 months, we started removing paid. But that initial duration of work was usually in sequence to get supposed to work [in Singapore].”

Later that year, and usually as Tutik had privileged off her debts, her mom upheld divided in Indonesia, a few days before Eid al-Fitr, a vital Muslim holiday. “At that point, we suspicion we ought to go behind home,” Tutik said. “But given my agreement wasn’t over yet, that wasn’t possible.”

When her agreement expires in a few months, and when she earnings to Indonesia, she says she will reason a gathering – a “selamatan” or “kenduri” ceremony – to commemorate her mother.

According to Shelly Thio of Transient Workers Count Too, (TWC2), Tutik’s box is not uncommon: “All the domestic workers we have assisted have told me that their work day starts at 5 a.m. and ends until their chores are completed, that is around 10 to 11 p.m. and for some, 12 a.m. in a morning – that’s 17 to 19 hours any day. These hours are a normal and they are not paid for operative some-more than 8 hours a day.”

She combined that a “live-in law” creates “opportunities for such exploitation and abuse. The domestic workers are cramped to a homes and they are constantly monitored. Even with a many agreeable of relationships, domestic workers work impassioned hours, are underpaid and skip autocracy to mount adult for themselves.”

Returning Home

It’s been years given Tutik initial left home, and many has altered in a meantime. Ika, her eldest daughter, is now in high school, and Ira, her youngest, is now in 10th grade. The rice fields around her encampment have been harvested no reduction than 6 times.

In a meantime, Tutik says she is mostly impressed by operative conditions in Singapore. “Day follows day” Tutik writes in an SMS. “Month follows month, year follows year. we have now been here for dual and a half years. I try to grin and laugh, though unequivocally we am great in my heart. we do not bewail what happened. we have to leave behind a ones we adore given we know that this life requires sacrifices and struggles.”

“But we can’t live quietly or absolutely here,” she writes in another SMS. “There are too many problems with a family, and now this has caused problems with my possess well-being.”

Week pass, months pass, and then, in early June, Tutik’s agreement comes to an end. She has spent two and a half years in Singapore. Her final morning is spent busily make-up her things, and afterwards she takes a cab to a airfield where she play a craft for Indonesia.

The tour home usually takes 6 hours, though to Tutik a channel contingency feel many wider.

After a automobile outing over half-broken roads, labyrinth by villages and rice paddies, Tutik’s chateau appears on a quarrel of likewise built homes – prolonged buildings with brightly embellished verandas. Her family waits for her inside.

The reunion is resigned during first. Tutik murmurs a few words, embraces her daughters, and afterwards turns divided to unpack. The girls crawl their heads and continue eating. For some time a usually sounds are a organisation vocalization on a front porch, wrapped in a blue fume of their clove cigarettes.

But shortly awkwardness gives approach to intimacy. The girls assistance Tutik unpack, and years of stretch tumble away. It has been dual and half years given she has seen her daughters, and, when she earnings to Singapore in dual months’ time, to work for a new employer, it will be another dual years. Ika, who is 18 now, will have graduated from school, and Ira will be in her final year.

Every day, migrants will leave a country; and any day, migrants will come back. In a meantime, Tutik’s dual months off – dual months of Sundays – contingency be an unthinkable reprieve.

But a some-more she stays with her daughters, a some-more she realizes their futures count on her leaving.

“For farmers, there’s no salary,” Tutik says. “If we plant a possess paddy, we sell a partial of it, and save partial of it for ourselves to eat until a subsequent year.”

“I wish my children to turn successful people, useful people. we wish to give them an education. we know that is going to need millions and millions of Rupiah.”

Where Now?

Standing in Singapore’s executive business district, one is wakeful of countless networks of energy and vast flows of capital. ANZ is a soaring participation in a skyline, and looks out towards HSBC and Chevron House. In all these cases, a buildings were built by low-waged migrants, mostly from India and Bangladesh.

We built this city,” migrants in Singapore infrequently say, and everywhere a explanation is tangible: in extended roads, in hospitals and schools, and in a clean, lead brush of skyscrapers, that seem like so many rebukes to gravity.

The efforts of domestic workers are harder to measure, though they are equally essential to Singapore’s lifeblood, helping run thousands of households opposite a country. When, if not now, will they be treated properly?

For amicable workers, a really slightest that Singapore needs is a inhabitant smallest wage, for adults and migrant workers alike. They also disagree that migrants should be given a autocracy to change their employers though carrying to change their permits. That desert is crucial, they say, as it would give migrant workers a mobility to switch between jobs, safeguarding them from exploitative and vulnerable operative conditions.

This would also have a knock-on outcome of undermining a apparent parole of employers and practice agencies, given they would no longer authority such a open and cooperative work-force. Those conditions, simple expectations in grown countries, are denied to migrant workers who come to Singapore.

As prolonged as supervision officials see migrant workers as commodities, however, it is formidable to see how those changes will happen. As Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang pronounced as recently as 2010:

“When we demeanour during a migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking during it from a viewpoint of tellurian rights… At a finish of a day, whatever factors would be means to assistance us to means a expansion of a economy for a advantage of a countrymen, for a advantage of a country, we will really go for it.”

At a many inexhaustible turn of interpretation, a acknowledgement presumes a “trickle-down” mercantile vision, in that a “growth of a economy” will eventually advantage low-waged migrants. But even during a best, Kwang’s comment is flawed.

If Singapore has a many millionaires in a universe per capita, as good as a moneyed middle-class, it also has some of a top levels of inequality. The country’s Gini coefficient – a ratio that measures income distribution – is 0.414, creation it one of a many unsymmetrical societies in a OECD.

What needs to change and who will do it? For NGOs in Singapore, it is a matter of reforms both during home and abroad, from unsentimental considerations – such as agencies apropos some-more pure by providing domestic workers with an itemized bills of their losses – to elemental improvements to legislation inspiring migrant workers’ rights.

Until these changes occur, women like Tutik will continue to see emigration as a matter of chance – or fate.

“Sometimes people have good luck, infrequently they don’t. All of that is adult to God. All we can do is keep praying diligently; that’s what matters.”

Nicolas Axelrod is a photojournalist formed in Southeast Asia. Michael Malay writes about migrant workers in ASEAN countries. The authors are partial of a Ruom common of journalists.

*Corrected from a original

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