Sep 23, 2021 Last Updated 4:59 AM, Sep 20, 2021

Far-sighted approach to migrant rights

Published: Dec 21, 2020
The Indonesian government is much more interested in its own citizens abroad than Filipino migrant workers under its nose

Whisnu Setiawan

Elijah, a migrant teacher in Indonesia, expresses her disappointment with the school administration’s bias against Filipino teachers: ‘No matter how hard we work, they’ll never trust us as much as Singaporean teachers, because we are Filipinos. Our work is almost never appreciated. Most of the Singaporean and Malaysian teachers get work permits after only a few months. Because we are paid less, they don’t care if we are going to be caught and locked up in a prison cell.’

To boot, recent studies show that Filipino teachers in Indonesia also face precarious conditions on the job. But few do more than cut their losses and move on.

Protection of Indonesian migrants overseas is clearly on the government’s agenda. But there is also a legal commitment to do more to protect the rights of foreign workers in Indonesia. Much is known about the dire conditions of the 14,000 or so refugees waiting in the country, but not so much about how the Indonesian government goes about upholding the rights of foreigners toiling in its own territory.

When problems emerge

Jason, another Filipino working in Indonesia, was an editor with a video editing company. In the beginning, the company was based in Singapore, and Jason accepted the offer to help expand the company’s business to Indonesia. But in the middle of his contract the company terminated his employment, accusing him of performing badly and being tardy. Surprised, Jason formally challenged the termination through Indonesia’s labour dispute settlement system. Consequently, he went through the three phases of labour dispute settlement: trying to reach an agreement with his employer, seeking third-party mediation by a government official, and suing his employer at the Industrial Relations Court in Jakarta.

But as with most disputes like this, things did not really go Jason’s way. He claims that his employer initially told him that he could keep working there if he moved to a different position. He discussed the offer with his wife that night, but the next day his employer told him that the deal was off the table, and that they had decided to terminate his employment instead. In order to receive severance pay, a tenure award and his remaining wage, the employer told Jason to sign a letter stating that he voluntarily resigned and that he would not sue the company. He refused, knowing that it would strip him of his legal right to the money. That angered the employer, who threatened to withhold Jason’s passport, which companies often have for months at a time while they go about meeting all of the Indonesian government’s rules for employing foreigners. But the main point here is that Jason’s employer used this situation against him, which is too often the case for low-paid migrant workers right across East Asia. Here Jason needed the Indonesian government’s help to level the playing field.

Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia wait to return home, April 2020, in a major repatriation effort / Antara/Aswaddy Hamid

Missing the point

After failing to reach an agreement, Jason asked for mediation help at a Ministry of Manpower office in South Jakarta. But the mediator took the employer’s side, recommending that Jason sign the resignation letter. At the very least, Jason had expected the mediator to give advice based on the Manpower Law. Hoping that judges might take his side, Jason decided to file a lawsuit at the Central Jakarta District Court. But the judges too sided with the employer, agreeing that Jason had been the one to terminate the employment because the immigration office had not only issued him an exit permit, but he had then used his own money to return to the Philippines. The judges’ reasoning ignores the fact that Jason had no choice in the matter. If immigration authorities give an exit day, the only real options are to leave or overstay – which are both bad options for most migrant workers.

Jason appealed the decision at the Indonesian Supreme Court. He explained that contractually the employer was obliged to cover the cost of returning to the Philippines, but that he was forced to do so at his own expense. Immigration’s exit deadline was approaching quickly, and the employer could not be contacted. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court closed ranks with the lower court and rejected the appeal. This was Jason’s last chance. The fact that the Indonesian government failed to help could be because Jason was in the wrong. But it could also be because government systems tend to favour the strong over the weak.

Needing to address the drawback

Jason is only one of two thousand Filipinos living and working in Indonesia. Most have middle-income positions. And this number should increase if the hype around the ASEAN Economic Community is anything to believe. Technically, according to that agreement, the Indonesian government should be making it easier for some categories of migrants from other ASEAN countries to work in Indonesia. But, troublingly, it has shown little interest in doing much to protect those migrants’ rights. Of course the situation is very different for the millions of Indonesians living and working abroad – the Indonesian government tries hard to appear to be doing a lot to protect them. These contradictory policy positions draw attention to a blind spot in the government’s human-rights agenda. For a country that strongly advocates migrant rights abroad, it does very little to protect migrants at home.

Whisnu Setiawan (whisnu.setiawan@binus.ac.id) graduated with a bachelor degree in International Relations from BINUS University.

Inside Indonesia 142: Oct-Dec 2020

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