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  • Writer's pictureAngeline Callista

Indonesian Migrant Workers: Behind the Protection Policy

Angeline Callista

If one thing Covid-19 reminds me of, it is the life of migrant workers. Privileged to escape the pandemic to a state bubble called Singapore, I experience a chunk of it – leaving the comfort of home, sharing a small space, doing domestic work, being on lockdown while facing uncertainty. My experience opens my eyes that migrant workers live the pandemic life on a daily basis, with life dependent on someone else’s generosity, or often, inhumanity.

Domestic work and other informal sectors constitute an important part of Indonesia’s labour market, both within the country and globally. The World Bank and Statistics Indonesia (BPS) survey mentioned that currently there are approximately 9 million Indonesian migrant workers globally, with only 3.7 million of them are officially recorded. Indonesian migrant workers predominantly work in the domestic sector and come from rural areas in East Java, Central Java, West Java, Bali, and Lampung.

There are push and pull factors of why one decided to be a migrant worker, one of them is for better livelihood. Many inspiring success stories come from migrant workers who have lived abroad – They went and renovated their houses, started up small businesses, purchased plots for farmland, as well as sending their children for education. Further, not limited to their own family, but they also bring a positive impact to their community. Being a migrant worker is deemed with greater pride and reward. However, the reality of migrant workers is not always as sweet as it sounds.

In 2004, the case of one former Indonesian migrant worker, Nirmala Bonat, covered the headlines of news across Indonesia and Malaysia – the country where she worked. She was brutally beaten, severely burned with an iron, had boiling water thrown on her, and mistreated in multiple ways for approximately five months. The case of Nirmala further triggered massive anger from the Indonesian public and activists to seek justice and protection for migrant workers. Pressured by the public, the newly elected president at that time further produced several policies to strengthen the regulation of migrant domestic workers. Ten years later Nirmala won the case against her employer.

Despite Nirmala’s success in accessing justice, lengthy process and numerous unrecorded cases have been the fate for many other Indonesian migrant workers. Approximately more than ten thousand cases of right violations, physical and sexual abuse or even murder are recorded annually. However, very few of them could be solved by Indonesian law and justice. For instance, in 2009, only one out of 30 trafficking cases of Indonesian migrant workers could be solved. The number of cases and the lack of access to justice proves that there is still a gap in legal provision for these workers.

In 2015, Indonesia President Joko Widodo expressed concerns about the fate of these workers and planned to repatriate them due to the pride of the country. The president’s speech triggered mixed reactions from the public and migrant communities. Activists mention that the state should support workers with protection provisions instead of condemning the work. They mention that protection is an integral part of social rights to ensure the safety of workers, especially considering the violations they often face. Moreover, the common discourse of migrant workers as victims instead of capable workers always puts them in a disadvantaged position.

Understanding the reality of migrant workers, it is important for the government to ensure better protection through better recording, pre-departure preparation, background check of employers, provision of access to justice, and monitoring their working conditions periodically. In addition, it is also important to shift the discourse of migrant workers.

Indonesian policies of migrant workers: Protecting or Profiteering?

It is worth noted that the government has made certain efforts in providing better legal protection for migrant workers. For instance, the government issued Law No. 39 Year 2004 and Law No. 18 Year 2017 on Migrant Worker Protection and establishment of Indonesian Migrant Worker Protection Agency (BP2MI), which train workers and protect them and their family since pre-departure, during departure and post-departure. The government also tries to build the migrant family community in 260 regencies/cities. However, implementation remains minimum and migrant workers remain those who are most vulnerable. The head of BP2MI also mentioned that the agency is the government body with the lowest state budget, which disallows them to give maximum protection for migrant workers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many migrant workers are unprotected, vulnerable to exploitation, suffering from poverty and food insecurity, and often without access to healthcare and social protection. With the employers staying home and losing some of their income, many migrant workers reported having worked extra hours without getting paid. In Singapore, the arguably safest place in the world from the pandemic, cases reached 1,400 a day only in the migrant workers' dormitory, which revealed its precarious living condition. 12 to 20 people were packed into bunk beds in a room ventilated by small fans attached to the ceiling or walls.

Understanding the reality of migrant workers, it is important to understand on what basis the policies have been shaped. Tracing back, Indonesian policies of migrant workers were not made to protect, but simply for economic reasons. Labour migration has started in Indonesia since 1890, initiated by the Dutch East India Government to fulfill the workers' deficit in several countries. Despite the long history, not until 1967, 12 years after Indonesia gained its independence, labour migration was first stated in one of the articles of the National Act number 14 Year 1967.

In 1969, the first national policy that focuses on labour migration was introduced. The policy was written in the Government Regulations No. 4 Year 1970 and was issued by the Ministry of Labour. However, the policy only focused on permit regulation and sanction.

The process of policy establishment implies the notion of power where labor migration was initiated by the ruling power to decide which policies to take. During this era, it could be seen that the government did not have any knowledge of migrant workers, or putting them as priorities, proven by the lack of policies created.

Fast forward to 1998, the Asian Financial Crisis had caused a drastic increase in unemployment. It further encouraged the prevalence of domestic work and labour migration. The government-led development strategy to reduce unemployment within the country further makes Indonesia one of the largest suppliers of migrant workers. Further, in just two decades, the policies to regulate migrant workers had shifted from reactive to proactive.

To date, the remittances generated by migrant workers have reached USD 11 billion, second to the oil and gas sector in contribution to Indonesia’s economy. The contribution of migrant workers is further acknowledged by the state by calling them the “foreign exchange hero.”

Migrant worker’s wide economic contribution and yet their often-unfortunate reality makes them a subject in the capitalist economy. For instance, Malaysia, as the receiving country has the strategy to advance their labor market through importing domestic workers to replace their domestic work, in which Indonesia becomes the supplier of migrant workers. This has made migrant workers subject to the geopolitics between Indonesia and the receiving country, with economic priority is put above protection and rights.

Aside from geopolitics, migrant worker as a subject in the capitalist economy is also a gendered process. Women’s recent involvement in paid work is still a highly debated topic on whether it brings positive or negative impacts for them. This happens due to the challenges women still face such as gender division of labor, pay gap, double burden, as well as the reinforcement of other forms of patriarchy within the work itself (Elson and Pearson, 1981). All these aspects have put women in a disadvantaged position and therefore undermined the transformative potential of women’s involvement in the labor market.

Since 1999, the number of female migrant workers has exceeded the number of the male. Female worker constitutes 84% of these workers, where the largest jobs proportion of these migrant women include domestic maids, caregivers, entertainers, sex workers, and other service employees. This implies that the domination of women has reinforced the gender division of labor, especially in these low-paid sectors. Many domestic workers' employers mentioned that they prefer Indonesian migrant workers compared to Filipino due to their docile and obedient nature, which makes it contrasting with the discourse of protection and rights. Such desired natures contribute to how they are treated and further to the gendered economy, in which the legibility of migrant workers is shaped accordingly.

The situations imply two important aspects in ensuring the protection of migrant workers. First, the narrative shift from becoming the subject of the capitalist economy to a capable self. The narrative shift will allow migrant workers to exercise their rights and increase their sense of self. For instance, learning the employers' language and building a network of fellow migrant workers are proven to increase their sense of self and the ability to protect themselves.

Second, the support and policy issuance from the government. Policy serves as a medium for political intervention, which also serves as evidence of the relationship between the governing and the governed. While the government is progressing in providing protection, and yet still faces challenges, preserving protection could start by changing the narrative and taking care of domestic workers within the country, who face similar situations.

With recognition and policy intervention, society could start to see more value in the work of migrant workers, so that they are able to contribute to the economy, achieving better livelihood with more decent rights.


Angeline Callista is a public policy consultant, with particular interests in gender and labour market. She obtained her Master’s Degree in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics, and Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Universitas Pelita Harapan, Indonesia. She has been researching and writing about domestic worker issues since 2015.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 02 — September 2021


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