On Family and Society of the Migrant Workers


According to the official data, there’re at least 3.5 million citizens of Indonesia become migrant workers. This numbers were not included millions of undocumented migrant workers that spread in many countries. The number of Indonesian migrant workers will always be increased from year to year as result of deteriorating of the economic crisis and increasing the state dependency of the remittance of the migrant workers.

Most of the Indonesian migrant workers are working in Mid-East, Southeast Asia (Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia), and East Asia. Women are composed the majority with the favorite sector are domestic as housemaid or other manual job. They’re not only works in the dirty, dangerous, and difficult situation, but also frequently experiencing the xenophobia and violence in political or criminal.

In December 2007, Indonesian migrant workers contribute US$ 4.85 billions (Rp 44 trillion) remittance to the state. This contribution places the remittance as the second largest contribution—after oil and gas—to the government. Hence, the Indonesian mass media frequently accredited the Indonesian migrant workers as the “hero”. But, this accreditation was not equal with all impact to the living of migrant workers and their families. On the contrary, problems that emerged as result of migration exactly becoming bigger and bigger.

Women’s Question

Migration is not a new phenomenon. Hence, it’s a natural respond of the society to seek better living outside of their community. It’s also what happened in the phenomenon of the labor migration in Indonesia. But as other development in society, the today labor migration phenomenon, of course covers the present contradiction in society.

In Indonesia, the issue of labor migration is mostly focus on the phenomenon of labor migration after 1970s. There’re some differences between phenomena of labor migration before and after 1970s. Some of the differences are: before 1970s; most of the migrant workers are male, skilled labor or high education, without any regulation or agencies. After 1970s; most of the migrant workers are female, unskilled labor, with many regulation and multilevel agencies.

Indonesian Migrant workers are women issue. It’s not only because number of female migrant workers are large bigger than male, but also the structure of the labor export phenomenon of Indonesia were very feudal-patriarchal. As you can see, most of the Indonesian migrant workers work as domestic workers or as “housemaid”.

This is not a ‘strange’ sector for Indonesian women. Traditionally and culturally women are directed by family and society to be the ‘domestic workers’. People in Indonesia usually said that women’s role are only in domestic area. Women only allowed presenting in dapur (in kitchen), sumur (in backyard), and kasur (on bed). Most of Indonesian women, particularly those whom live in countryside still be bridled by patriarchal structure of control.

They were control economically, politically, culturally, even sexually. They are not being paid for their labor because working in the house as well as other reproduction activities is considered as the obligation of women. Their political and economical right are often not been acknowledged, their cultural aspiration were still discriminated and their sexual right are also been denied.

For some women, working abroad as migrant workers could be assumed as the resistance of the restriction and fundamentalism in families. For those, working abroad becomes the way to liberate themselves from economic restriction, cultural discrimination, and other ‘unwanted’ traditional obligation. They hope for freedom economically, politically, culturally, and sexually.

But, for the rest of women migrant workers, working abroad were becomes one kind of the form of loyalty to their family and society. Working abroad was becomes the women’s responds to defend the living of their families during the worsening crisis in society. It’s doesn’t matter whether it’s abroad or still in the country, because the most important is they have to find job or working to generate income for their family.

Reason to Migrate

Issue of economy becomes the favorite caused the migration. As also found in other sending countries, economic crisis forced million people to seek better living by migration. It’s also be the biggest factor that we can easily found in Indonesia today. As a neocolonial society, economic crisis in Indonesia was never found the way out. Imperialist domination and the oppression of big-feudal landlords as the ruling class in Indonesia are only worsening the crisis in Indonesian society.

Particularly after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, numbers of the neoliberal policies had been signed. Agriculture hardly destructed by the trade-liberalization, vulnerability of the light manufacture industries had been increased. Almost a half of Indonesian populations live with the income under US$2 per day. More than 40 million people are reported as unemployment. As the agrarian country, at least 56,52 of 70 million Indonesian peasant, ironically, were landless peasants.

The biggest effect of the crisis hit the rural communities where most of the migrant workers were originally came from. Indonesian economic crisis had aggressively pushed the land consolidation and displaced million of poor peasant and farm workers from their land. On behalf of the name of attracting foreign investment, eviction and land grabbing are increase in every year. Land and other agrarian productive resources had been consolidated to serve the passion of imperialist capital accumulation.

Most of the migrant workers came from the most vulnerable element in the rural community. They were come from the poor peasant or farm workers families that their economical and political access remains restricted, culturally backward, and legally blinded. Their lackness access to the productive resources in countryside is the main factors that force them to be migrated.

They cannot compete with others society member which has a better education level or having enough information access to the job opportunities. In the same time, state are failed to guarantee their right to have decent wage and job. That’s why, working abroad as migrant worker are became the first choice to choose.

Labor migration process were easily understand by following the first aspect of the imperialism; “concentration of production and monopoly”. In the context of Indonesia, where the society are still under imperialist domination and the structure of the remnant feudalism still exist and control the power of communities, the use of labor were still relatively still be controlled by the landlord. This are always can be seen in the phenomenon of labor migration in Indonesia; where the Landlord class (and bureaucrat-capitalist) had a crucial part in the sending process of migrant workers.

We can say that the sending process of migrant workers—in Indonesia—is a symptom or the development of the historical role of feudal-landlord in the present situation. Since the Dutch colonial periods, one of devotion form of feudal-landlords was mobilizing labor to fill the colonial needs.

In the today phenomenon, sending the migrant workers are have a same meaning with fulfilling the imperialist need of the cheap labor. For example, we can’t deny that the migrant workers had a crucial role in the development of Malaysian industry. It also happened to other imperialist forces that operate in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries (including Iraq). Big demand of labor had created opportunities the migrant workers.

Especially in Indonesia, migrant workers cannot be assumed as the free labor as we consider workers of the modern industry. Migrant workers are definitely close with the term of “bondage labor”. They didn’t have right to the decent wage because there exist salary deduction, they didn’t have a right to the collective bargaining, they also didn’t have right to form their own union. They were tied in debt agreement with their agencies and obliged to pays debt that some of it were perpetuated.

So, it is understandable why the benefit of migration were never flows to the migrant workers or their families.

Impacts and Responds

The recent phenomenon of the Indonesian labor migration were caused by economic crisis and delivered worsening crisis. Labor migration is the economic solution only for the state and ruling classes in society but not the solution of the people, particularly the poor and marginalized people. That’s why, labor migration oftenly only created miseries for people.

Economic crisis in the neocolonial society had breaking down the families and communities. Poor and marginalized people are been displaced, evicted, victimized, and their labor had been sold. This is the biggest impact and also the strongest caused to defend and fight for the right of migrant workers and their families. But, it’s quite difficult to arise, organize, and mobilize the emancipation and political movement of the migrant workers and their families without combining it with the concrete and primary contradiction in the society.

In our experience, organizing families of migrant workers without connecting it with other sectoral issues, like organizing the remittance, were usually done ended not in the political action. It’s always ended as a spontaneous action to respond a particular case with only a little political impacts. That’s why, until now, we’re not yet succeeded to push regime to sign and ratify the 1990 UN convention on protection the right of migrant workers and their families.

In order to arise, organize, and mobilize people to respond the issue of migrant workers, we need to cooperate with peasants and workers and other democratic elements of the society. Most of the families of the migrant workers are poor peasants and farm workers, that’s why the issue of genuine agrarian reform becomes the most important issue.

Most of the migrant workers are come from the productive element of the society. They’re youth and highly need decent job and employment. That’s why education and job become the attractive issue not to reduce the migrant workers or restrict the right to travel, but to create the opportunity to have job without having to go abroad and leaving their families. The most potential element of society in the country that can be organized to campaign the right of the migrant workers are returnees. They’re politically legitimate to speak on the need of the acknowledgement and protection the right of migrant workers and their families. 

Therefore, Sekretariat Bersama Buruh Migrant Indonesia(Sekber BMI) as the new formation in Indonesia to campaign and defend the right of the migrant workers, returnees, and their families initiating the process of campaigning the acknowledgment and protection the right of migrant workers, returnees, and their families by organizing returnees and with the assistance of the peasants organization, campaigning the right of the migrant workers by combining it with other sectoral or communal issues, like agrarian reform.

Paper is going to be presented in the Interantional Migrant Alliance (IMA), Hongkong 15-16 June 2008

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