Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Indonesia's “Special Treatment” of their International Migrants: Between Lip Service and Reality

By: Endang Sugiyarto

Indonesia recently experienced a new breeze promising to bring a wind of change when the new president took drastic action to protect the welfare of Indonesian international migrants (who are known as Tenaga Kerja Indonesia or TKI meaning Indonesian overseas worker) by asking the relevant government apparatus to “really treat them as heroes” (as indicated in the government official documents)[1] but also to “remove some of the special treatments” or privileges associated with or given to them. The apparent contradiction between these two requests lies at the heart of the issue. 
Due to the lack of job opportunities in the domestic economy, millions of Indonesians are currently working abroad, mostly as low-skilled workers but with incomes at least five times higher than those of their counterparts working in the same job domestically. According to official figures from the National Authority for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers (BNP2TKI), on average 563,262 Indonesian migrants worked abroad each year during the period 2007 to October 2014. This number is far below that of the unrecorded migrants who leave the country using various means. The majority of the TKI work in Southeast and East Asia and the Middle East, and the top five destinations from January to October 2014 are Malaysia (30% of total), Taiwan (19%), Saudi Arabia (11%), Hong Kong (8%) and Singapore (7%). They are mainly employed as  domestic workers (33%), followed by caretakers (12%), plantation workers (11%), factory workers (11%), general workers (5%), seamen (5%) and others (24%). 
The TKI directly contribute to the domestic economy by reducing unemployment and providing foreign exchange income via remittances, which could only otherwise be obtained through exports. Thus, this labour export policy is a “win-win” for the government, for it doesn’t need to provide jobs for those who leave while the economy reaps the benefit of their remittance inflows. Thus, the government has decided to treat them as foreign exchange heroes who must be respected accordingly. This is reflected, for instance, in provisions made at the airport. The TKI are given a special terminal, a special immigration lane, a special lounge, special trolleys, a special transfer bus or transportation, and other special things (the pictures below illustrate some of these provisions). The list of special provisions is in fact more extensive than outlined here, as some local governments add supplementary benefits such as temporary accommodation. In some cases, additional special treatments are given to those joining the G(overnment) to G(overnment) programs operated in conjunction with  Japan, Korea and Taiwan for example. These G to G programmes provide benefits in the form of special seminars, financial management and exchange rates for the salaries of the TKI involved.
So what is the problem then?
The problem is the gap between the policy and the reality of implementation on the ground. In a nutshell, these special treatments provided by the government have been used by corrupt government bureaucrats and their accomplices, often located in the private sector, to extort money. They set up a range of tariffs, exchange rates, and mark ups for their own benefit. The findings of a series of undercover and surprise inspections by the anti-corruption committee that were also exposed by the media have revealed the bad practices. Moreover, during the video conference between the President and Indonesian workers in: Brunei Darussalam, Egypt, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which took place on 30 November 2014, the exposure of further corrupt practices led to the President taking action to remove some of the special treatments afforded to the TKI. The crackdown on these extortionate practices is welcome, and include the thwarting of a syndicate allegedly engaged in human trafficking of Indonesian migrant workers through Malaysia to destinations in Middle Eastern countries. But more work is needed to address this issue since  what has been exposed so far is just the tip of the iceberg! The new government needs to systematically solve the problems by better facilitating migration and protecting migrants’ welfare, throughout their migration cycle from the stages prior to their departure up to their return home. 
To start with, the deployment system must be improved, including better preparation of migrant workers. In connection with this, serious concerns must be addressed in relation to recruitment agencies. Their role has become very dominant (partly due to the lack of appropriate government intervention) which has resulted in migration becoming very commercial. Many agencies now also act as employers, creating a situation in which the migrant worker has become very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in different forms. The widespread practice of “fly now and pay later” which renders migrants indebted to the agencies until they repay the cost of their flights, and of agencies having full control over all the arrangements: from the migrants’ passports to their contracts and deployment etc., should be seen as worrying.
Last summer I met a new migrant on her way to Malaysia where the recruitment agency had organised her trip, obtained her passport and visa, provided domestic and international transportation, and made all the other arrangements, while she had made practically none of the preparations herself. She was just told to go to the airport, board the aircraft, and somebody would pick her up at the destination airport. She had no information at all about the Indonesian Embassy in Malaysia and less than Rp2000 (less than 20 US cents or around 10 GB pence) in her pocket because the agent also told her that she would not need any Indonesian money. What if just one step in this elaborate process went wrong? How would the aspiring migrant worker cope? The outcome of her desperate action is anybody’s guess! 
Even more concern will be revealed if we scrutinize the job contract and other details, and ask basic questions such as: what kind of job will she be doing? What are the terms? How much will her salary be? How many months will it take her to repay all the costs associated with her departure that have been prepaid by the agency? And so on…
The potential problems and complexities stemming from this kind of arrangement are predictable. To illustrate, the official data shows that 181,193 migrants arrived back in Indonesia through 14 different airports from January to October 2014. Many of them returned before their contracts were completed due to various problems, such as incomplete documents, work-related ill health, an inability to work or communicate properly, and other reasons. Who are to be blamed for these outcomes? I hope that the new government is not going to blame the migrant workers for they are more the victims than the culprits! Their only mistake is to try to escape from poverty by entering into the wilderness of the international labour market. And they only took that route because the domestic market did not provide them with any other opportunities….

[1] This kind of treatment is not unique to Indonesia as many other developing countries adopt similar policies.
Fig 1: Examples of airport special facilities for the TKI - Indonesia's foreign exchange heroes

Endang Sugiyarto is a doctoral candidate in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium