‘Together we are stronger’ – Indonesian women migrant workers

Kabar Bumi members and APWLD partners in Indonesia, expressing solidarity to Mary Jane Veloso. (Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

“We face the same problem. We don’t want women in this situation. We had to help each other because together we are stronger.”


YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia – Abused, exploited, deceived and neglected.

This is how migrant workers in Indonesia have been treated not only by their employers but also by their recruitment agencies who confiscate their documents to guarantee that they would pay their placement fees.

In a community in Cilacap, Central Java in Indonesia, many women were victimized by the confiscation of documents by recruitment agencies. Cilacap is said to be one of the main areas of origin for women migrant workers from Central Java, Indonesia.

In 2020, a feminist participatory action research (FPAR) conducted by Kabar Bumi, an organization of migrant workers and their families, showed that this practice has severely affected returning women migrant workers in Indonesia.

“Without the documents in hand, 85 percent of the interviewees encountered difficulties in their life, such as not being eligible to apply for government welfare and assistance programmes, and inability to register themselves to continue their education or being unable to apply for land certificates,” the research read.

Members of Kabar Bumi welcoming guests with a performance. (Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

Documents include passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, ID card, family card and diploma. This serves as collateral or some form of debt guarantee for the recruitment agencies. Migrant workers are forced to surrender these documents until they have paid the agency through salary deductions. According to the research, document confiscation is a widespread phenomenon among migrant domestic workers from Indonesia.

The study revealed an estimated nine million Indonesians working abroad. At least 65 percent are women and the majority are employed as domestic workers.

Kabar Bumi has been in the forefront of the struggle of migrant women in Indonesia. They are also one in calling for clemency for Filipina migrant worker Mary Jane Veloso, who has been in detention for 13 years after Indonesia President Joko Widodo granted temporary reprieve.

Indonesian migrant workers’ situation is not far from Filipinos. Due to lack of work and decent salaries, many Indonesians are forced to look for work overseas.

The partners of Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development’s (APWLD) Feminist Participatory Research (FPAR) on migration programme from six countries visited this community last Feb. 26 to listen to the stories of migrant women.

Elin Anita Awaliyah, 35, shared her struggle with a recruitment agency that withheld her documents when in 2019 she was terminated by her employer after only just a month in Hong Kong.

Awaliyah, a victim of domestic abuse, said she was told to pay 15 million Indonesian rupiah ($976) as penalty for not finishing her contract. But Awaliyah had no money to pay for the penalty, it was then that she sought the help of Kabar Bumi whom she knew through her sister-in-law.

Kabar Bumi has helped her in her case. In the end, Awaliyah was able to get her documents back and also did not pay the said penalty.

But it was not a walk in the park.

Iwenk Karsiwen, chairperson of Kabar Bumi said they have demanded the government to act on agencies that confiscate official documents of migrant workers.

“The government will not do something if we will not be vigilant and push them to do the right thing. They often act in favor of the agencies,” she said during the community exchange.

“We do not pin our hopes on the government. We fight on our own,” Karsiwen added.

The research also revealed that even if the women migrant workers “lodge their complaints with the authorities, the redress mechanism is only carried out by mediation.”

Kabar Bumi members sharing experiences with the APWLD partners. (Photo by Anne Marxze Umil/Bulatlat)

“Cases were settled after the agencies and employers returned the documents without requiring any obligation to compensate the workers nor legal consequences. Consequently, these cases continue to occur due to the lack of consequences on the perpetrators,” the research read.

According to Retno Dewi, secretary general of Kabar Bumi, the confiscation of documents by employers or agencies across all sectors in Indonesia is a common problem. But for migrant workers, it’s worse, she said, because when the agency closes migrant workers would not get their documents back.

“It’s difficult to get a copy again. You have to go to court to prove that you lost your document,” she told Bulatlat in an interview.

Dewi was also a migrant worker, first in Singapore when she was still a minor and then later in Hong Kong.

Strengthening Indonesian women

Based on FPAR, majority of migrant workers and their families are not aware that legal document confiscation is illegal and violates their rights.

“Most of them believe that it is part of the requirements of the recruitment process. In addition, the migrant workers rely on recruitment agencies to work overseas. They have no choice but to surrender their documents even if they are reluctant to comply,” the research read.

With this, Kabar Bumi organized a series of training and education workshops to help build the capability of women in the community to handle cases related to document confiscation. Not only this, they also assisted in cases such as human trafficking, overcharging, vaccination access and data forgery by recruitment agencies.

The group also continues to provide support and consultation services for migrant workers and returnees who had experienced violence and exploitation.

“During FPAR, Kabar Bumi assisted 22 returnee migrant workers to file an official complaint to the authorities regarding the confiscation of their documents. At least six cases were also settled where women migrant workers were able to retrieve their documents from the agencies.

“Through FPAR, Kabar Bumi successfully expanded the organization’s membership and mobilized the movement against identity and legal document confiscation,” the research read.

The group were also able to broaden their network with migrant organizations in Indonesia and destination countries to “strengthen the solidarity for migrants’ rights.”

Asked what their motivation is to keep going, a woman migrant worker said, “We face the same problem. We don’t want women in this situation. We had to help each other because together we are stronger.” (RTS, RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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