Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Organising for migrant worker rights

Organising for migrant worker rights

Michele Ford and Wahyu Susilo

   Migrant workers should have the right to vote
   Courtesy of Migrant Care

Indonesia's migrant workers experience labour rights abuses in Southeast Asia and the Middle East that would simply not be tolerated by trade unions in Indonesia. Some of the problems they face are the result of regulatory failure in Indonesia itself. Others are created by host governments, which deny migrant workers fair protection under labour laws and impose discriminatory - and often very arbitrary - conditions on their right to stay and work.

Where local conditions allow, Indonesian migrant workers abroad have formed trade unions or other organisations to challenge discriminatory government policies. These initiatives have been most successful in Hong Kong. There, thousands of members of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (IMWU) and the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers (ATKI) frequently march the streets of Causeway Bay. Migrant workers in Singapore and Malaysia have also tried to organise, but much less successfully. In other countries - like Saudi Arabia, where women migrant workers are not allowed out of the house without a male escort - there is no chance of organising at all. In places where there are no unions, migrant workers rely on their social networks. For example, Bugis, Boyanese, Floresian, Maduranese and Sasak migrant workers in Malaysia have their own informal associations, which link them to their friends and families in Indonesia. These networks are useful when they need favours and other support. But they cannot help when it comes to putting collective pressure on governments to protect migrant worker rights or bargaining with employers.

Some of the biggest trade unions back in Indonesia claim to have large numbers of migrant worker members, but they are nowhere to be seen. Unions' poor record on migrant labour is not surprising given that the issue emerged in the early 1990s, when Suharto was still in power and the unions were firmly under government control. Even now, the national union confederations are relatively weak and tend to prioritise labour issues at home, while the strongest sectoral unions - which make up the backbone of the country's labour movement - represent industries where next to no one migrates. In any case, they've had their hands full with issues such as outsourcing, which poses a constant threat to their membership. As a consequence, they have little time or energy to support or advocate for those who leave Indonesia to work abroad.

Stepping in

Trade unions' silence helps explain why non-government organisations (NGOs) became active in advocacy for migrant workers. The first NGOs to get involved were feminist groups concerned about the potential for abuse of female domestic workers. In the mid-2000s, there were over 100 NGOs dealing with migrant labour in some way Indonesia-wide. Many of these organisations joined national networks, such as the Women's Movement for the Protection of Migrant Workers (GPPBM) or the Forum for Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers (FOKER). All the major Jakarta-based NGOs are also connected to regional networks such as the Migrant Forum in Asia and CARAM Asia. Some, like Migrant Care and the Centre for Indonesian Migrant Workers, also have direct links in countries where Indonesian migrants work. These national and international networks give migrant labour NGOs visibility in the policy arena. They also help them do their grassroots work.

Most migrant labour NGOs spend the bulk of their time dealing with individual cases of abuse: from human trafficking, rape and torture to unpaid wages. Migrant Care and the umbrella organisation KOPBUMI focus almost exclusively on pushing for policy change, using media campaigns and engaging in dialogues with the government. Others still, like Solidaritas Perempuan, Indonesia's first migrant labour NGO, do both.

The first NGOs to get involved were feminist groups concerned about the potential for abuse of female domestic workers

Some grassroots migrant labour NGOs have worked hard to develop organisations that can speak directly for migrant workers because they believe that migrant workers' reliance on NGOs weakens their position. Because migrant workers are by definition outside the country, these NGOs have focused on organising the families of migrant workers and returned workers. As a result of their efforts, migrant worker community groups are found throughout Java and in places further east like Lombok. When successful, they can do much of the work that NGOs do, such as handling cases and running education programs, as well as advocating policy change at the local level.

Together with these groups, NGO workers have begun to use the legal system to put pressure on the government to better meet the needs of the country's migrant workers. For example, in 2002 they organised a class action lawsuit against the Indonesian government following the deportation of almost 140,000 undocumented migrant workers from the Malaysian state of Sabah. Up to 70 deported migrant workers died in the border town of Nunukan and thousands more suffered from serious illnesses, including dysentery and malaria because of the simple fact that the Indonesian government was unprepared for their arrival. The court recognised the government's negligence in the first instance before the decision was overturned on appeal. Even though it failed, this initiative set an important precedent for Indonesian public law, with civilians beginning to use the legal system to sue the state for deliberate failures to provide essential public services.

A migrant worker-less migrant worker movement?

Despite these successes, it is clear that there are two big problems with the community-based organising strategy of migrant worker NGOs. First, most of the migrant worker community groups rely heavily on external funding. They are located in relatively poor areas and cannot depend on financial support from their members. This creates a continuing relationship of dependence on their donors, which are usually the NGOs that founded them. Second, their opportunity to advocate for migrant workers is limited because they're located far from the centres of power and are not accustomed to speaking the language of bureaucrats. Another issue is that the government doesn't take these groups very seriously, at least in part because the vast majority of their members are not migrant workers.

Migrant worker activists are not blind to these challenges and in the early 2000s, a group of migrant workers returned home from Hong Kong on a mission: they wanted to start a migrant worker union of their own. With KOPBUMI's help, these migrant worker activists established the National Network of Migrant Workers (Jarnas BMI). At the first congress of this new network in 2003, an organisation called the Federation of Indonesian Migrant Workers Organisations (FOBMI) was established and immediately started organising in the villages and pushing for full legal recognition of migrant workers. Two years later, FOBMI changed its name to Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI). SBMI's first president, Dina Nuriyati, was a former migrant domestic worker who - like her fellow activists - had discovered migrant worker unionism in Hong Kong.

One of SBMI's key aims was to obtain formal recognition as a trade union so that it could start bargaining on migrant workers' behalf. SBMI's attempts to register initially failed because it did not meet the standard definition of a 'union'. It was eventually awarded union status in mid-2006. But after an optimistic start, it soon became clear that building up a membership of current migrant workers was no easy task. As a result, SBMI continues to face the same kinds of problems and dilemmas as the migrant worker community organisations it tried to replace.

The absence of a credible migrant labour union is a serious issue for Indonesia. The government is (understandably) cynical about a migrant worker movement without migrant workers. And Indonesia's organised labour movement continues to be slow to act in the area of migrant labour. With very limited room to move, migrant community groups and organisations like SBMI will keep searching for mechanisms that better represent Indonesia's migrant workers. But for the time being, at least, migrant workers will have to continue relying on NGOs to keep migrant labour issues on the national agenda.

Michele Ford (michele.ford@sydney.edu.au) teaches about social activism at the University of Sydney. One of her areas of research is migrant labour activism in East and Southeast Asia.

Wahyu Susilo (wahyu@infid.org) is a long-term Jakarta-based migrant labour activist, who has been associated with several key migrant labour NGOs.


Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

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.