Indonesia’s Migrant Workers: Dreams and Tears
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Indonesia’s Migrant Workers: Dreams and Tears


Working in the afternoon sun, Aneda, a 24-year-old farmer from Indonesia, deftly holds her knife as she cuts away at the full-grown stalks. She gathers the stalks into bundles, and later beats the bundles against a wooden board. The precious grains – which she has seen grow over the past six months – spill onto a green net.

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


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April 26, 2014 – Indramayu (Indonesia). Aneda works in a rice field in the outskirts of Dadap. 

Similar scenes are being enacted all over Aneda’s regency*, Indramyu, a region of scattered villages and endless rice-fields. The region produces 3 percent of Indonesia’s rice, a surprisingly significant amount for a small province on the tip of Java.

But apart from providing food, Indramayu nourishes another important demand: migrant workers.

Each year, men and women leave this region in their hundreds – for places as varied as Kuwait, Hong Kong and Singapore. Foreign lands offer what home cannot – an escape from poverty.

But for migrants like Aneda the dream of success abroad often goes awry. In order to leave, many take on large debts during the recruitment and training stage. The debts take years to pay off and can also set the pattern for exploitative working conditions: afraid that they will lose their jobs if they complain, many migrants end up working long hours without adequate payment and accommodation.

The majority of Indonesia’s 6.5 million migrants are women, and this group is especially vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic workers are confined to their places of residence, often face language problems with their employers, and enjoy few workers’ rights.

According to the ILO, up to 80 percent of Indonesia’s domestic workers endure isolation, underpayment, long working hours, forced labor, human 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 despite the huge debts she took on in order to migrate, she asked to be released from her contract. She barely broke even.


A shy, quietly spoken woman, Aneda also reveals she is not the first in her family to work abroad. Four years earlier her sister disappeared in Kuwait where she lived as a domestic worker. To this day, there has been no formal investigation.

Stories like this are never far from the news. Reports of labor exploitation and excessive debts are common, with a high proportion of problems coming from the Middle East. In 2011 and 2012, for instance, 7,000 complaints were filed with BNP2TKI, the Indonesian government body charged with the protection and placement of migrant workers. Most complaints involved the non-payment of wages, loss of contact, and discrepancies between promised and actual working conditions, but there were also 358 cases of physical abuse at the hands of employers. More than half of all complaints came from Saudi Arabia.

Not all experiences are this extreme. The life of a migrant worker can often feel like a gamble and much depends on the laws of host countries and the employers one receives. Many migrants return better off, with money to build new houses and send their children to university. In 2012, $7.2 billion was sent home in official remittances.

In some towns, there are even roads known as “migrant lanes,” rows of houses built with the wealth of migrant remittances. Thick with fresh paint, the houses stand as living proof, as proud boasts even, that success abroad is possible.

But for all their grandeur, the houses illuminate a hard truth, especially for women like Aneda. For every 5 kilograms of rice she harvests she receives 1 kilogram in payment. Indramayu offers family and security, but too little in the way of opportunity.

Despite her experiences of Singapore, however, and despite her sister’s disappearance in Kuwait, Aneda is determined to try her luck again. “In the future, I want to go to Taiwan. My friend said the salaries are higher there. And when my contract is finished and I’m back home, I [will] build a new house.”

Crossing the Straits

The flow of migrants from Indonesia to Singapore is one of the busiest migratory pathways in Southeast Asia. There are currently 220,000 domestic workers in the country, the majority of whom are Indonesian.

With its wealth and international standing, social workers say Singapore should be leading light in Asia, a model of labor relations for other countries to follow. But the reality is far from ideal.

There is no minimum wage in the country, and domestic workers receive no union representation. Domestic workers are also excluded from the country’s Employment Act – a cornerstone of labor legislation that grants workers a mandatory day off, regulated working hours, and the right to change employers.

For Jolovan Wham, director of HOME, a migrants advocacy group, weak legislation is the root of many problems. He says that if the government is serious about improving the livelihood of its domestic workers, a fundamental revision of labor rights are needed.

“Employers have the unilateral right to cancel the work permits of their domestic workers – to dismiss them and repatriate them. There are no avenues of redress, even if the dismissal was a wrongful dismissal.”

He also said there were many cases of mistreatment. HOME registered 47 cases of physical abuse in 2014, as well as nine cases of sexual harassment. The NGO has also registered complaints about poor living conditions, unjustified salary deductions, and horrific cases of food deprivation.

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

Of particular concern are unlicensed brokers – also known as “sponsors” – who recruit aspiring migrants from towns and rural villages. While many sponsors abide by the law, performing what they see as a vital services for job-seekers, Migrant Care says that many sponsors actively deceive aspiring migrants. “On many occasions the information women are given is not correct,” says Susilo. “The salary is not the same as what was promised and the women receive something else. This lack of transparency is the beginning of many problems.”

Migrant Care also says that underage migrants are occasionally recruited under conditions indicative of trafficking.

“Their ages are falsified. They are made to pay large sums of money and wind up trapped in debt. These are workers who, according to ILO, should be working eight hours a day, but in reality it’s more like 24 hours a day.”

These practices flourish in Indonesia because of weak government oversight and poor law enforcement, Susilo says, and adds that the government urgently needed to develop stronger policies to protect its migrant population.

A Migrant’s Life

Over the duration of their contracts in Singapore, domestic workers are obliged to live in the residence of their employers. This is known as Singapore’s “live-in” law, and is fiercely contested by social workers, who say that the rule makes women vulnerable to excessive working hours. If there is no way of leaving work, there is no way of clocking out.

For Tutik, a 38-year-old woman from Semarang, Indonesia, the “live-in-law” is the cause of numerous problems. She has worked in Singapore since 2012 and for two and a half years has not had a single day off. She says she feels stressed and constantly overburdened.


Tutik works full time looking after Izzati (7), in the evening after school Tutik will pick Izzati up from the school bus which drops her off at her grandparents’ house. 

Tutik’s working day is an exhausting list of chores. Before anyone wakes, she will be gliding through the house at 5 a.m. – a small apartment in a residential tower – preparing for the day to come. On some mornings she finds that Izzarti – one of the children she looks after – has crept into her bed. The relationship between the parents is fraught, Tutik says, and when arguments break out the children go to her for comfort.

There are four family members in the 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 sharing the same room for nearly three years.

The family’s day begins at 7 a.m., and by then Tutik will have cleaned the house, made breakfast, and prepared the girls for school. Every morning there is a customary moment of chaos and panic before the family is ready.

There are few pauses in Tutik’s day – and even the pauses are filled with anticipation. Izzarti, whose school day begins later than Yi Li’s, needs to catch the bus at noon. In the meantime, groceries need to be bought, clothes washed, rooms cleaned. Whenever she can, Tutik will perform her prayers as a Muslim.

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

Domestic workers are not supposed to work at more than one residence under Singaporean law, but HOME says this rule is regularly broken, and according to Tutik this is part of her everyday life.

She has held this schedule for the past two and a half years, and on most nights finishes work around 10 or 11 p.m.

According to her employer, Tutik decided not to take a day off in order to save money. But for Tutik the reasons are more complex. While she says that days off are “wasteful,” because they mean lost earnings, she also says her “employer doesn’t want us to take days off; after all, someone’s got to look after the little kids.”

And while she is fond of the children, she also speaks of the difficulty of caring for them on a full-time basis, as well as her growing sense of distance from her own children in Indonesia, whom she texts by phone once or twice a week. While becoming a surrogate parent for Izzarti and Yi Li in Singapore, she has become an absent parent for her daughters in Indonesia.

“Of course, I miss my kids, my family, my husband,” she says. “But looking forward to my children’s future, it is my obligation. It’s my own responsibility as a parent.”

Debt and Doubt

As with many other migrants, that sense of responsibility sustains Tutik through long periods of debt and doubt. She says it took her eight months of work before her agency stopped taking salary deductions. “After that eight months, I started getting paid. But that initial period of work was just in order to get accepted to work [in Singapore].”

Later that year, and just as Tutik had cleared off her debts, her mother passed away in Indonesia, a few days before Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday. “At that point, I thought I ought to go back home,” Tutik said. “But since my contract wasn’t over yet, that wasn’t possible.”

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

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

She added that the “live-in law” creates “opportunities for such exploitation and abuse. The domestic workers are confined to the homes and they are constantly monitored. Even with the most harmonious of relationships, domestic workers work excessive hours, are underpaid and lack autonomy to stand up for themselves.”

Returning Home

It’s been years since Tutik first left home, and much has changed in the meantime. Ika, her eldest daughter, is now in high school, and Ira, her youngest, is now in 10th grade. The rice fields around her village have been harvested no less than six times.

In the meantime, Tutik says she is often overwhelmed by working conditions in Singapore. “Day follows day” Tutik writes in an SMS. “Month follows month, year follows year. I have now been here for two and a half years. I try to smile and laugh, but really I am crying in my heart. I do not regret what happened. I have to leave behind the ones I love because I know that this life requires sacrifices and struggles.”

“But I can’t live calmly or comfortably here,” she writes in another SMS. “There are too many problems with the family, and now this has caused problems with my own well-being.”

Week pass, months pass, and then, in early June, Tutik’s contract comes to an end. She has spent two and a half years in Singapore. Her final morning is spent busily packing her things, and then she takes a taxi to the airport where she boards a plane for Indonesia.

The journey home only takes six hours, but to Tutik the crossing must feel much wider.

After a car trip over half-broken roads, meandering through villages and rice paddies, Tutik’s house appears on a row of similarly built homes – long buildings with brightly painted verandas. Her family waits for her inside.

The reunion is subdued at first. Tutik murmurs a few words, embraces her daughters, and then turns away to unpack. The girls bow their heads and continue eating. For some time the only sounds are the men speaking on the front porch, wrapped in the blue smoke of their clove cigarettes.

But soon awkwardness gives way to intimacy. The girls help Tutik unpack, and years of distance fall away. It has been two and half years since she has seen her daughters, and, when she returns to Singapore in two months’ time, to work for a new employer, it will be another two years. Ika, who is 18 now, will have graduated from school, and Ira will be in her final year.

Every day, migrants will leave the country; and every day, migrants will come back. In the meantime, Tutik’s two months off – two months of Sundays – must be an unimaginable reprieve.

But the more she stays with her daughters, the more she realizes their futures depend upon her leaving.

“For farmers, there’s no salary,” Tutik says. “If we plant our own paddy, we sell a part of it, and save part of it for ourselves to eat until the next year.”

“I want my children to become successful people, useful people. I want to give them an education. I know that is going to require millions and millions of Rupiah.”

Where Now?

Standing in Singapore’s central business district, one is aware of innumerable networks of power and large flows of capital. ANZ is a towering presence in the skyline, and looks out towards HSBC and Chevron House. In all these cases, the buildings were built by low-waged migrants, mostly from India and Bangladesh.

We built this city,” migrants in Singapore sometimes say, and everywhere the proof is tangible: in broad roads, in hospitals and schools, and in the clean, metallic sweep of skyscrapers, which seem like so many rebukes to gravity.

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

For social workers, the very least that Singapore needs is a national minimum wage, for citizens and migrant workers alike. They also argue that migrants should be given the liberty to change their employers without having to change their permits. That entitlement is crucial, they say, as it would give migrant workers the mobility to switch between jobs, protecting them from exploitative and unsafe working conditions.

This would also have the knock-on effect of undermining the apparent impunity of employers and employment agencies, since they would no longer command such a pliable and submissive work-force. Those conditions, basic expectations in developed countries, are denied to migrant workers who come to Singapore.

As long as government officials see migrant workers as commodities, however, it is difficult to see how those changes will happen. As Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang said as recently as 2010:

“When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights… At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country, we will definitely go for it.”

At the most generous level of interpretation, the remark presumes a “trickle-down” economic vision, in which the “growth of the economy” will ultimately benefit low-waged migrants. But even at its best, Kwang’s assessment is flawed.

If Singapore has the most millionaires in the world per capita, as well as a prosperous middle-class, it also has some of the highest levels of inequality. The country’s Gini coefficient – a ratio which measures income distribution – is 0.414, making it one of the most unequal societies in the OECD.

What needs to change and who will do it? For NGOs in Singapore, it is a matter of reforms both at home and abroad, from practical considerations – such as agencies becoming more transparent by providing domestic workers with an itemized bills of their expenses – to fundamental improvements to legislation affecting migrant workers’ rights.

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

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

Nicolas Axelrod is a photojournalist based in Southeast Asia. Michael Malay writes about migrant workers in ASEAN countries. The authors are part of the Ruom collective of journalists.

*Corrected from the original

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