Dreams of female migrant workers are often shattered, but hope remains

Published in The Jakarta Post, Indonesia (11 December 2023)

Purwanti (name has been changed to maintain confidentiality) was just 17 when she arrived in Hong Kong. When she saw the stunning views of glittering lights, lines of high-rise buildings, beautifully dressed women and the lavish lifestyles she came to know from many Hong Kong-produced movies and TV dramas, Purwanti felt her dream had come true.

She had decided to work abroad to support her elderly parents and four younger siblings in her village in Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta. She had been promised by her recruiter or broker that she would work as a waitress at a restaurant or a hotel in Hong Kong. Her father had to take on a large amount of debt from a loan shark in his village to pay the broker the Rp 10 million (US$833 in 2016). The money was used to pay for her travel, work documentation and predeparture training sessions. 

Once she arrived at Chek Lap Kok International Airport, together with several girls from various parts of Indonesia, Purwanti realized she was being deceived. Instead of working at a hotel or a restaurant, Purwanti was taken into a small, crowded apartment in the busy Kowloon business district to work as a domestic helper for a family of four. 

“I worked almost 20 hours per day, without any day off. Worst of all, they did not pay my salary for two years,” she recalled. Language and cultural barriers had made her condition worse. “I was beaten or slapped when I made mistakes.” 

Purwanti is just one of millions of Indonesian women pursuing their dreams as worker overseas. The number of estimated international migrants within and from Southeast Asia has been increasing over the past three decades, with countries in the Asia-Pacific region comprising nearly 30 percent of international migrants. Based on data from the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), there were an estimated 10 million Indonesians, 70 percent of whom were women, working overseas as migrant workers in 2017. This number increased by 11 percent annually from 2017 to 2019, according to the agency. 

Female migrant workers make vital social and economic contributions to their communities and countries of origin and destination, and can be a crucial source of empowerment for women. However, women migrant workers face an increased risk of violence, trafficking and discrimination, which limits their access to fair recruitment and decent work. For many migrants, dreams of success abroad are often shattered by bleak realities. Some can bring home money to improve their living conditions, but others return in caskets. 

Data from the Finance Ministry stated that in 2018, migrant workers sent around US$11.2 billion in remittances. No wonder they are often called “pahlawan devisa”, or the heroes of remittance. It is interesting to read the opinion of a researcher from the Department of Anthropology of the State University of New York, D. Irawati, who stated that the label “heroes of remittance” is deceptive. 

“This narrative of national heroes of remittance is reproduced to conceal the manipulation of the informal economy which is excluded from labor consensus and unprotected by labor legislation. It also covers up the government’s irresponsibility and inability to handle abuse and violence against migrant workers, especially female migrant workers.” 

Across the world, female migrant workers are vulnerable to various forms of rights violations and discrimination, including physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Female migrant workers face abuse and violence in all the different phases of the process of working abroad, from the recruitment stage and abuse at the training centers in their own countries to their workplaces in their destination countries. 

Over the years, we have heard many heart-wrenching stories about abuse and violence against Indonesian female migrant workers. There were some legal victories regarding the protection of Indonesian female migrant workers including the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian worker in Hong Kong. With the help of legal aids and migrant legal protection bodies, Erwiana succeeded in bringing her employer to court, where the employer was sentenced to six years in prison. 

Kartika Puspitasari’s case marked another legal milestone. After a 10-year struggle for justice, the Hong Kong court awarded her more than $110,000 in compensation for being treated like a slave by her employer, who hired her as a domestic migrant worker from 2011 to 2013. 

However, there are millions of other Indonesian migrant workers whose lives are in jeopardy. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), labor laws around the world usually exclude domestic work from regulation, or provide less protection for domestic workers than for others. Weak legislation and a lack of strong legal protection abet various forms of exploitation of female migrant workers. Protecting and supporting migrant workers as well as providing safe working conditions is stipulated in Indonesia’s National Development Target and Goal 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Strong legal ground, including Law No. 18/2017 on the Protection of Indonesian Migrant workers, does exist. But such laws are often used to prevent women from working overseas, rather than ensuring their rights to work overseas and at the same time protecting them from violence, discrimination and exploitation. Crisscrossing the dark clouds of travails hovering around migrant female workers, there are some signs of hope. The Safe and Fair project which is being implemented by UN Women through a partnership with the ILO (in collaboration with UNODC) has the overriding objective of ensuring that labor migration is safe and fair for all women in the ASEAN region. 

It is also encouraging to see the growing support from various organizations including the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), UN Women, the ILO, Solidaritas Perempuan, Mampu, Migrant Care, Migrant Workers’ Union and other agencies, which consistently advocate, promote and amplify the need to educate and to protect our female migrant workers to ensure they get fair, safe and equal treatment in Indonesia and in the countries in which they work. 

Equipping foreign service offices and embassy personnel with the knowledge, skills and a clear understanding of the procedures to support female migrant workers who are victims of abuse or violence can be life-changing. In Indonesia, the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry developed the Guidelines for the Protection of Indonesian Women Migrant Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The guidelines serve as a reference for the ministries/agencies and service providers managed by the government and community-based organizations at the national and local level, as well as consular services for Indonesian women at every stage of the migration journey.

Crisis service providers in Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are playing a critical role in helping women. In Indonesia, safe shelters have enhanced women’s groups and strengthened the supportive environment they provide. The media is also instrumental in shaping public perception toward migrant workers, especially women migrant workers, by producing a fair and ethical portrayal of these workers through their journalistic works. The media has the power to influence policymaking processes to better protect and empower women migrant workers as well as to reduce negative public attitudes and perceptions. 

The betterment of female workers’ lives by making their migration journeys safe and their salaries fair will depend on collaborative efforts. 

Published in The Jakarta Post, Indonesia 
(11 December 2023)

written by: Rita Widiadana and Shobha Shukla
(Rita Widiadana and Shobha Shukla are founding board members of the Asia Pacific Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media) and Global Antimicrobial Resistance Media Alliance - GAMA).