A matter of luck
Published: Apr 24, 2010


Rosslyn von der Borch

   Singapore's Lucky Plaza, a popular meeting place for domestic
   workers
   Wayne Palmer

The changing nature of Indonesia's rural economies and an increased awareness of the world - brought about by higher levels of education, greater exposure to the mass media and the ever growing numbers of returned labour migrants - have contributed to a marked change in the aspirations of young rural women. At the same time, the absence of almost any work opportunities beyond poorly paid farming or factory work drives many to seek work abroad, powerfully sustained by their dreams of a better future for themselves and their families.

Women have little or no choice about the external factors that determine the way their migratory experience unfolds. A migrant domestic worker newly arrived in her host country is assigned to an employer about whom she knows nothing. In the absence of any sense of control, she relies on 'luck' to deliver kind and understanding employers.

Migration roulette

Employers and agents often claim that migrant domestic workers arrive in host countries unprepared for the challenges ahead and attribute the difficulties they experience to this lack of preparation. This is true in part, as many migrants find the move from an Indonesian village community and lifestyle to the urban, middle- to upper-class household of their employer disorienting. But it is important to acknowledge that agents, employers and the host community can also make this transition more difficult than necessary.

When I have raised the issue of labour migration with young domestic workers in Indonesia, they have indicated that they are well aware of the high levels of risk attached working overseas. Television and print media coverage of the ordeals endured by some migrant workers make this common knowledge. Prospective labour migrants, then, are generally aware that they will be confronted with a range of difficulties and may experience intense homesickness.

Domestic worker Rini Widyawati secretly kept a diary in which she recorded her observations and experiences during the years she spent working in Hong Kong, which was published after her return to Indonesia. In the opening pages of her diary she describes her stark awareness that she may fail to earn the money she dreams about, but also that the gamble she is taking and may even cause her death. She writes:

A nervousness rises in my heart. Will the future that I seek here be mine? … Will I leave this airport in two years having been successful? … Or will I die here, so that only my corpse will again pass through this airport. This has been the fate of some other Indonesian migrant workers, the reasons for whose deaths are sometimes not clear. Or will I kill myself here when I feel lonely and isolated, with work and family problems piling up on each other? My friends, who have also been migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, have told me this happens.

Perhaps only willing risk-takers seek work abroad, while the 'risk-averse' stay at home. In any case, hundreds of thousands of women take these substantial risks each year, hoping for high gains that are not possible if they stay in Indonesia.

Cycles of luck

When Indonesian migrant domestic workers go overseas they find themselves pitted against familiar enemies, in particular the structural disempowerment so intimately known to their home communities. It is unsurprising, then, that they speak so often of luck. Wilma, who works in Singapore, comments:

Being a maid is not bad at all, but a lot depends on luck. Luck is important. Because if you go to a family and they bully you, don't give you any days off, lock you in the house, then you're really in a bad place. So you need luck.

The uncertainties that arise when transferring from one employer to another can be immensely stressful. But Susi feels she has always been fortunate in the placement lottery:

I've always been lucky, I think, where employers are concerned. They have all treated me well. Maybe I'm good [laughs] or maybe they're good - or it's just my life, or something like that. It's okay. I can do my work.

Dian commented that she was lucky in having the 'understanding' of her employers:

My first boss and this one, they've both let me do my own thing. She isn't finicky about time. The important thing is that the work is done. Yes, they've both been understanding. I've been lucky in that.

Nina talked about cycles of bad luck and good luck. She experienced the 'bad luck' of being repatriated at short notice by her first employer in Singapore, which infuriated her. However she went immediately to another employment agent in Jakarta and applied to return:

So one month later I came back to Singapore. That employer was Straits Chinese. Her mother was sick and had complications, so she needed another maid. She employed me. But I wasn't lucky. Four months later the lady passed away. But good luck was coming. Because I went to the agency and said I wanted a transfer… In the afternoon the agent called me. She asked me, 'Do you want to transfer to a whitey?' [Very animated tone of voice]: 'Hey, that would be great!' I said. At two o'clock I had an interview. Then I got my employer.

Talk among domestic workers of the importance of luck - and of the personal resources necessary for dealing with adversity - points back to the structural injustice and disempowerment that affects labour migrants, to government and legislative failings in both home and host countries, and often to the personal ethical failings of employers, agents and government officials. Consequently, luck continues to play a part in determining the working conditions of migrant domestic workers, even after years overseas.

Not just passive accommodation

In some cases, migrant workers' reliance on luck may decrease as they gain confidence and are empowered through their experiences as migrants. Given access to each other - especially through days off that can be spent discussing problems and experiences, sharing food and news from home or attending classes - a domestic worker's reliance on luck can begin to be combined with a more complex awareness of her rights.

A reliance on luck in navigating the risks inherent in labour migration can suggest a passive accommodation to fate. But it is also closely linked to the personal capital that can make the difference between a 'successful' and an 'unsuccessful' migration experience. Especially in situations where a migrant domestic worker finds herself 'unlucky', her ability to accommodate her situation and to garner the personal resources necessary to see out her contract or to negotiate change, are tested.

But while accommodation can appear to be in tension with the notion that these women are active risk-takers, it can also be an active state, closely aligned to these women's views of themselves as economic pioneers and as risk-takers. As Nurjannah observed, speaking to me about having acquired the discipline of accommodation:

Lately everybody's talking about foreign workers, about maids. That never happened in the past. Even so, there are still many local employers who use mean and bad words when they talk to their maids. Especially - well I can't say especially who they were - but I was a victim of this myself, long ago, sometimes. But I grew up and now I don't care what they say. I just - I mean - but some girls might feel irritated when the - often employers call them 'sotong (squid) head', something like that [laughs, a bit embarrassed] and sometimes the children say bad things as well. I can handle it. I don't mind. I understand. But some newcomers, they've never heard that word, and they might feel so bad and so irritated and they feel so angry.

When asked to explain what she meant when she said she understood, Nurjannah added:

For myself, for my own personal wellbeing, what else can I do? Apart from wear it? It's easier on myself if I just wear it. It makes everything easier. No arguments. I just let them go. Later I will talk to them nicely so they will think about what they've said. But some girls can't do that. Especially in the beginning. I was also like that with my first employer.

In the importance placed on luck by migrant domestic workers, then, we can see a pragmatic appraisal of what is possible in their relationships with their employers and as migrants.

A form of resourcefulness

No migrant worker in receiving countries where comprehensive labour laws exist - and are enforced - should have to rely on luck to deliver reasonable working hours, time off from work and fair pay. However, like Nurjannah, many migrant domestic workers are prepared to accommodate a great deal, regarding this as part of the job. The focus of these women is pragmatically fixed on the route to the achievement of their ultimate goal of financial gain, and not on what is 'right'. Even if she becomes the victim of severe abuse, this goal may not be risked through attempts to assert her rights unless the odds are clearly in her favour.

But far from signifying acceptance of their 'lot', the ways that migrant domestic workers accommodate the challenges and difficulties they encounter demonstrate a resourceful negotiation of complex circumstances in which they are largely powerless. It is in this resourcefulness that the possibility lies for them to achieve the life they dream about - a life in which they have a measure of autonomy, more power to consume and knowledge of the world beyond their village.

Rosslyn von der Borch (rosslyn.vonderborch@flinders.edu.au) teaches Indonesian Studies at Flinders University in South Australia.


Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010