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Indonesian Migrant Workers Fight Against Inhumane Treatment Abroad

Migrant workers continue to face insufferable working conditions such as low wages, torture, and abuse due to a lack of government regulation and oversight.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Migrant workers’ abuse runs rampant in Hong Kong, a city that many look to for prosperity and an honest living.

Erwiana Sulistyaningsih won a civil case against her employer in December. The judge called the treatment that she endured “inhumane, dreadful and degrading.”

“I am very pleased with these decisions. I hope it serves as a lesson for all evil employers,” Ms. Sulistyaningsih, who is now 27-years-old, told The Globe Post.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih grew up in a small town in East Java and went to the capital city of Jakarta to become a housemaid after graduating from high school in 2013.

She said her parents only worked as farmers, earning no more than $3 a day and were no longer able to pay for her schooling and family needs.

“I wanted to help them by working in Jakarta but it turned out that my wages were very small,” she said.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih then decided to become a migrant worker in Hong Kong because she had heard that the rules of employment there were quite good. She had been told that there were holidays and the freedom to associate with other migrant workers.

But the hope of the exciting work in Hong Kong vanished when her employer repeatedly hit her.

“I was beaten, clawed, punched in some parts of my body … It caused my lips to tear, my eyes were swollen, my nose was broken,” she said.

She claimed to be rarely fed, not given holidays, unpaid, and worked for very long hours. Her employer always locked her inside the house so she didn’t have a chance to report her condition.

“My employer also threatened me by saying they would kill my family,” she continued.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih became unable to work due to intense sleep deprivation which resulted from an average of about three or four hours of sleep a night along with repeated beatings during an eight month period. Her employer thus sent her back to Indonesia in January 2014.

“When I was discharged, my employer dressed me in layers of clothing to cover my very thin body. She only give me around $8,” she said.

Photos of Ms. Sulistyaningsih’s bruises and beatings then began to go viral, raising concerns amongst the international community over the fate of domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong security forces then arrested Ms. Sulistyaningsih’s employer, Law Wan-tung, and took her to court on charges of severe torture and intimidation. In February 2015, she was sentenced to six years in prison and had to pay Ms. Sulistyaningsih’s salary for eight months.

The court followed up in December and ordered Ms. Law to pay her nearly $103,500 in damages for the abuse.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih said she would use the compensation to continue her schooling, medication, and help other workers who suffer the same fate as her.

There are still many workers who are experiencing violence but are afraid to speak out because they do not understand their rights or understand how to properly demand justice, Ms. Sulistyaningsih said. Inhumane treatment of Indonesian migrant workers is also rampant in other countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.

“Therefore, joining the workers’ organization is very important, so I know my rights and what to do in case of violence, I can share stories with other migrant workers who have the same fate,” Ms. Sulistyaningsih underscored.


Indonesian migrant workers poor conditions
Indonesian migrant workers protest poor conditions outside of the Consulate General Indonesian in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

Inhumane Treatment Continues

Eni Lestari, chairman of the International Migrant Alliance (IMA), told The Globe Post that Ms. Sulistyaningsih’s case is a breakthrough for migrant workers to demand greater rights from governments, both Hong Kong and Indonesia.

“Erwiana’s case is a breakthrough for us because we have been claiming for several years that modern slavery is taking place in Hong Kong. Society continued to deny this but now people accept that fact,” said Ms. Lestari, who is also a member of the Asian Migrant Workers organization in Hong Kong.

Ms. Lestari said the regulation on foreign workers has actually been included in the Hong Kong’s labor laws which ensures that they get the same rights as other workers such as holidays and paid leave. But the government is unwilling to regulate other rights, such as working hours and decent accommodation.

“[Migrant workers] are forced to live at home with employers, but there are no regulations regarding working hours or accomodation standards. Thus, workers are often exploited by vicious employers,” Ms. Lestari said.

She argued that this poor system means employers have virtually complete control over their maids for six days a week.

She continued to say that other forms of maltreatment are also often accepted amongst domestic workers. It is common for them to be terminated from work for racial reasons, degraded because they only work as domestic workers, or looked down upon because they come from poor countries.

Ms. Sulistyaningsih’s case should encourage other workers to stand up for their rights and challenge their employers, Ms. Lestari concluded.

Law Wan-tung migrant worker abuse
Law Wan-tung was convicted of abusing and maltreating Erwiana Sulistyaningsih. She was also ordered to compensate her for the abuse that she had endured. Photo: Sam Tsang

The Root of Migrant Workers Problems

A World Bank report released in November 2017 mentions that more than 9 million Indonesians are now working overseas. At least 32 percent of them work as maids or baby sitters.

About 55 percent of Indonesian migrant workers are employeed in Malaysia, 13 percent in Saudi Arabia, 10 percent in China and Taipei, 6 percent in Hong Kong, and 5 percent in Singapore.

Ms. Lestari argued that the reason migrant workers experience so much abuse abroad is that their home country, in this case Indonesia, endures great poverty that forces them to seek employment abroad.

“They must undergo a recruitment system that enslaves them if they wish to go abroad,” Ms. Lestari said.

She said migrant workers have to join an employment agency that ties them into debt for placement fees. The agency can hold family cards and passports as long as the worker’s debt is not paid off.

“Migrant workers are forced to pay their salaries for 6 – 13 months to dealers and agents and if not paid off then the family will be intimidated and forced to pay off,” she said.

“That condition allowed Ms. Sulistyaningsih to survive in her employer’s house and willingly be sent home to save her family,” she added.

The Head of the Family of Indonesian Migrant Workers, Iweng Karsiwen, told The Globe Post that recruitment agencies were given enormous power when it comes to contract signing, pre-departure training, problem handling and repatriation. At the same time, they were not adequately monitored by the government.

“The government delivers all the authority from the delivery to the repatriation to the recruitment company. We hope we can take care of everything ourselves, from the selection of employers, to other documents,” Ms. Karsiwen said.

She said although migrant workers are employed legally, agencies do not provide sufficient training. “Training should be supervised and organized by the state, not by a company,” Ms. Karsiwen noted.

Indonesian female migrants are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, unpaid wages, stereotypes that they are criminals, and human trafficking because they do not know their rights and receive poor training.

Data from the Family of Indonesian Migrant Workers shows that 226 Indonesian migrant workers died in placement countries during 2017 due to occupational accidents, illness, violance, and murder.

Little Progress in Legislation

Although the Indonesian government has stipulated the cessation of migrant workers’ departure to Saudi Arabia and countries in the Middle East region since 2015, the flow of thousands of labor migrations has not stopped.

A report by the Jakarta-based migrant worker organization Migrant Care showed that more than 3,000 Indonesian women continue to go to the Middle East through unofficial channels that often expose them to evengreater risks due to a lack of regulation.

The World Bank’s report said that at least 4.3 million of the 9 million Indonesian migrant workers abroad lack proper documentation and are technically undocumented workers.

This lack of proper documentation is the result of a process that is expensive, complicated, and lengthy. The proper process has at least 22 stages and takes an average of five to six months. It also costs about roughly 52 percent more than the illegal alternative.

The World Bank has recommended Indonesia to streamline the migrant worker departure procedures, which will make them much cheaper or possibly even free. The organization said the government also needs to increase the competence of prospective workers to maximize work productivity, given that 78 percent of migrant workers only graduate from junior high school and primary school.

In addition, the Indonesian government also needs to improve protections through binding legal agreements in the destination country, increase labor market transparency abroad, and simplify the process prior to departure.

Responding to the World Bank report, Ministry of Manpower Head Muhammad Hanif Dhakiri said in a statement that the government continues to reduce risks for Indonesian migrant workers by increasing their competence and protection.

“We continue to make improvements in various matters concerning migrant workers,” Mr. Dhakiri said.

“Through bilateral talks with the recipient country, the government is also continuing to make sure our migrant worker do not get an excessive workload,” he added.

Muhamamd Hanif Dhakiri migrant worker abuse
Indonesia’s Minister of Manpower, Muhammad Hanif Dhakiri, argues that Indonesia has made considerable strides towards helping protect its migrant workers. Photo: Ali. Wafa

Indonesia has made some significant progress in protecting migrant workers during 2017, Mr. Dhakiri argued. In October, the Indonesian House of Representatives passed the Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Act, which regulates the protection and rights of migrant workers, social security, duties and responsibilities of the central government and local governments. It also puts into place integrated services for the placement and protection of migrant workers.

Indonesia also co-signed the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, which aims to establish a framework for closer cooperation amongst member states for addressing migrant worker’s issues in the region.

In addition, authorities launched the empowerment program for migrant workers and their families through the Productive Migrants Village (Desmigraif) program in villages that are the source of the migrants.

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