Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

From migrant worker to union organiser

Dina Nuriyati

I’m the third of six kids from Malang in East Java. My father is a farmer, who has always had a second job to make ends meet. When I was a kid, creditors used to come knocking on our door every week. Dad insisted we all get an education, even though he’d only finished primary school. But when I finished high school I knew there was no way he could afford to pay for me to go on to university. So in 1996 I decided to work overseas. I knew if I succeeded, I could help Mum and Dad and save enough money to eventually continue my studies. A lot of people were looking for opportunities to work overseas, because there were no opportunities at home. Lots of Indonesians went to Malaysia to work on construction sites and on the palm oil plantations. Many others went to Taiwan and South Korea to work in the factories. Most of the women went to work as domestic workers in the Middle East, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Domestic work in Hong Kong

When I registered to work in Malaysia I didn’t tell my parents at first. My mother cried and my father was bewildered when I asked them to sign the permission form. Initially they didn’t want me to go, but they finally came round. Then there was a problem with the factory I was supposed work in, so I decided to go to Hong Kong as a domestic worker instead. I chose Hong Kong because the wages were better than what I could earn in Singapore or Malaysia and, unlike the Middle East, it wasn’t too far away. The agent said conditions were good in Hong Kong and that I’d be treated well.

Before I left in June 1997, I had to do three months training in Java. After spending a few days in the local office of the labour sending company, we were sent to Madiun to a training centre, where we had to sleep in a garage for two months while we were trained. Then I did on-the-job training for another month with a local family. I had to sleep in a storeroom that was full of rats. In Hong Kong, things weren’t quite as I’d expected either. In addition to the housework, I had to look after a nine-year-old and clean the house of my boss’ father. Sometimes they took me to other relatives’ houses and I had to clean them too. For the first two months, I got no wages while I paid off my debt to my agent. After that, they only paid me HK$ 2,000 (A$ 330) per month, even though the contract specified that my wages were to be HK$ 3,860. They didn’t even give me my days off. For the first two years I sent almost all my money home. Finally I decided I needed to find a boss who would pay me properly. I had to pay HK$ 8,000 to make the move. My new boss had a huge house, so I had to work harder, but they paid me fairly and I had a day off every Sunday and on public holidays. This gave me a chance to learn Mandarin and computer skills.

Computer course changed my life

I was looking for information on a ­computer course when I came in contact with the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU), which was working with the YMCA to run courses for migrant workers. I became a member at the end of 1999. I did lots of training courses in things like paralegal skills and leadership and organised major events like the May Day celebrations. Not long after, I got a chance to represent the IMWU at a regional conference in Taiwan. It was hard to convince my boss to let me go, but finally she agreed.

By the end of 2000, I’d become the head of the union’s reintegration department and represented the union in the Coalition for Migrant Rights (CMR). Through the CMR, I got to be part of a research team that looked at discrimination and violence against migrant workers in Hong Kong. We presented the results of our research at the World Conference against Racism in Kathmandu in April 2001.

I loved being part of IMWU because we really made a difference. We made other domestic workers realise that — like us — they could take control of their lives. As I told the audience at the conference in Kathmandu, ‘we don’t want anyone to see us as ­victims; we are survivors because we strug­gle for our rights.’

Migrant workers at home

I was sad to leave the IMWU when my contract expired in 2001, but my friends and I were determined to continue the struggle when we got back to Indonesia. It turned out that it wasn’t just us who felt that way. When I got home, I found out about a whole range of organisations run by ex-migrant workers that involved people who wanted to go overseas and also their families. There is so much to be done. Migrant workers are exploited at every stage of the migration process. They may be tricked, subject to extortion, or physically or sexually abused during recruitment. It’s often no better when they arrive. They may be prevented from having any contact with the outside world, tortured, or even deported, as has happened in Malaysia. And when they get home, they are again at risk of extortion, not only from gangsters but also from the police.

We decided we needed to get together. We ran a series of meetings with the help of a group called the ­Consortium for the Defence of Indonesian Migrant Workers (KOPBUMI) and set up the National Network of Migrant Workers (Jarnas BMI). We had our first congress in Solo in Central Java in February 2003. There we established the Federation of Indonesian Migrant Workers Organisations (FOBMI), which involved 14 member organisations from eight provinces. We decided that we had to work hard on organising, not just advocacy work, because organising is the heart and soul of a worker organisation. At that first conference, I was elected head of the national committee. I was deeply aware of the challenges we faced. There were no laws to protect us and there was so much work to be done raising awareness in the villages.

Pressing for legal reform

As soon as we established FOBMI, we began to put pressure on the government to pass a law that would recognise and protect migrant workers. KOPBUMI had been advocating legal reform since 1997 and had prepared a pro-migrant worker draft law. We took the case to the parliament, so that they’d have to listen to our perspective. We knew that we needed as much support as possible so we worked together with community groups, academics and unionists who were concerned with the plight of migrant workers to establish an advocacy coalition. We also got ­support from our union friends in Hong Kong.

After our long struggle, the parliament finally announced it had prepared a draft law in the dying days of Megawati’s presidency in mid 2004. We were deeply disappointed. The draft law was little better than the Ministerial Decision it was supposed to replace. Under the law, migrant workers were still just commodities. In fact, many of the articles actually legitimised the exploitative practices we were hoping to abolish. We held protest after protest against the draft law. On 27 August 2004, our members came to Jakarta from all over Indonesia, and we protested again. Two days later we all went to the parliament where the law was to be passed. We had big banners that urged the members of parliament to listen to their consciences and not pass the bill. But they mustn’t have had consciences because they passed it ­anyhow. One of our members got beaten up and the security people took our camera.

FOBMI achieved a lot in its first two years. Besides legal advocacy, we ran training sessions in sending villages and worked hard to recruit new members. We also started to network internationally, when in 2004 we became a member of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA). But there’s still so much to be done, because for all our activism, migrant workers’ lives are basically the same. In June 2005 we had our second congress in Malang in East Java. We decided to change our name to the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI) and to establish a more formal national structure in the hope that we could be more effective. We started thinking too about how we could organise migrant workers while they were outside Indonesia. I’m still very much involved, but I decided it was time for me to take a different and less demanding role for a time while I concentrated on finishing my studies at university in Malang. Getting this degree is part of achieving the dream that first sent me overseas.

Dina Nuriyati (diona@fobmi.zzn.com) was the head of FOBMI until mid 2004. She is now on the advisory board of SBMI, and is involved in SBMI activities at the grassroots level.

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.