Jun 04, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

In sickness and in wealth

Double-storey modern house funded by a migrant in Hong Kong - Carol Chan
Published: Jan 09, 2016

Carol Chan

Local and national newspapers report almost daily on Indonesia’s transnational migrant workers. The news stories typically involve tales of returned migrants who started up small businesses with their savings, or tragic stories of migrants who are victims of abuse or death sentences abroad. Such accounts might lead us to assume that the risk of abuse is a trade-off for the promise of higher wages abroad. But is that how migrants, their relatives, and their neighbours think about success and tragedy whilst working overseas? For thirteen months between 2012 and August 2015, I travelled to two migrant-origin villages in Cilacap, Central Java, to explore these perceptions.

Almost every household in these two villages had a member who was a migrant, a returned migrant, or prospective migrant. But unlike the news coverage, there seemed to be clear contradictions in what these residents told me. On the one hand, people declared that almost every migrant was successful. They spoke of migrants who built modern concrete houses, started businesses, or sent their children to universities. Yet it was also widely said that ‘nobody is successful yet’. On the other hand, villagers claimed there were ‘no cases’ or migrant abuse, yet they also told many stories of migrants who had died mysteriously abroad, or returned home ill, scarred, or paralysed. Why was this so?

Labour migration from Indonesia

An estimated six million documented and undocumented Indonesian migrants work overseas, typically in Singapore, Malaysia, and countries in the Middle East and East Asia. They remitted US$8.55 billion in 2014. Taking undocumented workers into account, the vast majority of migrant workers are women, who tend to do informal work that is low paid, and where hours are not regulated. Men tend to work in agricultural or manufacturing jobs in groups. 

According to BNP2TKI (the National Agency for Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers), only 15 per cent of migrants who returned in 2014 did so due to ‘problems’. These problems included unpaid wages or other contractual conflicts, abuse, sickness, and even death. Such data may suggest that the majority of returned migrants did not experience problems abroad and are able to contribute financially to the economic welfare of their families and country. But this was not quite how villagers in Cilacap thought about migrant ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

Wealth and suspicion

In Cilacap, accounts of migrant success were fairly standardised. They typically described migrants who regularly sent money home, bought land, or started businesses. However, I began to notice that stories of success often came with a ‘but’. One morning in Cilacap, Bu Rina, Bu Siti and I were discussing migrants who were successful. Bu Rina mentioned a female migrant who was working in Hong Kong, and who had managed to fund a big house for her parents. The migrant’s mother told neighbours they she received about six million rupiah a month from her daughter.

Bu Siti, who has never worked abroad, was shocked, and asked how this was possible. In response, Bu Rina said that the money was ‘uang panas’, or literally, hot money. She suggested that such money was probably from sex work and that it was not halal, but forbidden and dirty.

A luxury too far? Migrant workers in Hong Kong rely on laptops to contact their families - KC Wong (https://www.flickr.com/photos/77290926@N07/7128911245)
A luxury too far? Migrant workers in Hong Kong rely on laptops to contact their families - KC Wong

Money, morality, and success are closely related for villagers. They often spoke about money in terms of ‘rejeki’ or gifts from God, implicitly as rewards for good and moral behaviour. Whether or not migrants are perceived as successful depends only partially on the material and financial gifts they send to their families. Their standing as ‘successful migrants’ also hinges on their gendered and moral reputations. This contrasts with how the Indonesian government and media refers to migrants as ‘foreign exchange heroes’, which emphasises their financial contributions.

If women do not send money home regularly, villagers are quick to accuse them of immoral behaviour overseas, such as loose sexual behaviour, adultery, and abandoning familial duties. For example, one male local leader said harshly, ‘My analysis is this. In cases where (female) migrants return without bringing any money, it is definitely because they had affairs there, having fun with Pakistani people or whatever.’

In contrast, if men do not regularly send money home, they are typically excused for having to pay their own debts, or needing the money for expenses such as cigarettes, food, or lodging. While not all villagers approved of men spending their earnings on such things as alcohol or commercial sex, many villagers tacitly accepted that these were ‘biological necessities’, or needed for the men to adapt to foreign cultural norms and cope with the pressures of living and working overseas. Women, however, were generally expected to be frugal, non-social, and save almost all their earnings for their family at home. Even migrant women who had returned to Cilacap were criticised if they spent money on clothes, make-up, and leisure. Moral evaluations and suspicion of migrant women’s wealth thus contrast starkly with villagers’ attitudes to successful migrant men. I never heard anyone doubt the source of men’s income overseas. Instead, it was considered ‘common knowledge’ that men’s wages in Korea, Japan, or Taiwan, were typically higher than that the average wage for women, though this is not always true.

Sickness and piety

Villagers generally consider migrants to be ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘failures’ if they died, did not send money home, returned without savings or before their contracts were up, or came back divorced, pregnant, or with health problems. Besides accounts of migrants’ wealth and opulent houses, I collected many stories of migrants who returned very tired or sick.

These stories of migration-related sickness often identified ‘social’ and ‘moral’ reasons underpinning the deterioration of a migrant’s health. There were countless accusations of adultery by both male and female migrants whilst overseas, or by the spouses that they left behind in the village. To my surprise, many of these stories often ended with the sickness or death of a family member.

‘There was a woman here who went to Saudi Arabia,’ one such story began. ‘Her husband was a very decent man, a tailor. He worked for himself and took care of their child since the child was young. The woman who came back from Saudi, once she came back, she wasn’t like a wife, didn’t do what wives were supposed to do… You cannot hide it. So they found out she had a boyfriend overseas in Saudi. Her father was so ashamed, you know, imagine how terrible it was for the parents, so extremely shameful. His health got weaker and weaker and finally he passed away.’

The idea that shame could lead to sickness and death was widespread – though many shameful stories are so secret and taboo that few villagers will talk about them in detail. This is especially true when they involve women experiencing sexual abuse, pregnancy out of wedlock, suicide, and mental illness, matters which are euphemistically referred to as ‘accidents’, ‘sickness’, or sometimes ‘violence’. A few local leaders said that the ‘Javanese mindset’ considered such issues to be sources of familial dishonour. One described sexual abuse as ‘something to just keep inside, don’t publicise it, don’t talk about it.’ Tragically, migrants in these cases are often blamed for their own plight, and suspected of immoral behaviour. And this can occur even in the rare cases where migrants make the brave decision to speak out about their ordeals overseas. As one villager dismissively remarked, ‘Some women who return pregnant may say they have been raped… But we can never know the truth. Maybe it was a mutual relationship. Who knows?’

In almost all cases of death, migrants’ kin and neighbours said that death was due to God’s will, or destiny. Bu Isti explained how her niece had died mysteriously in Saudi Arabia while she was working as a domestic worker. The employer had hidden the body and the death, and forbidden other employees to tell anyone about it. Her family only found out a year later. When I suggested to Bu Isti that this could be a case of abuse and violence, she disagreed. She said, ‘If it is abuse or torture, that is usually done by the employer… But with death, that is God’s doing. This is destiny.’  These attributions to God’s will or destiny often imply a link between migrants’ circumstances abroad and their moral character or religious piety. Indeed, prospective migrants often told me they believed that they will find good employers abroad and have good fates, as long as they were good and moral persons.


Indonesian migrants are typically represented in the media straightforwardly: as heroes or victims. In contrast, when migrants return to their villages, matters are less clear-cut. Financial wealth may gain migrants admiration but it does not guarantee respect. To be considered successful, money is not enough – the migrant must also be seen as a moral person. Equally sickness or failure will not earn migrants sympathy or social support, unless they prove to be worthy and moral victims. And as the examples above clearly show, the moral perceptions of migrants that underpin some villagers’ reluctance to see rape or death in terms of violence, or migrant’s wealth as success, are heavily gendered.

The moral judgements made of returning migrants have consequences for the entire practice of migration. Since people rarely talk openly about the difficulties migrants face overseas or labour abuse, villagers come to view migrant success as the norm. To make matters worse, migrants’ accounts of their own negative experiences are often individualised or dismissed as reflecting their own compromised morality. Migrants’ stories are believed to different degrees based on their moral reputation in the village, and so powerful expectations of success are influenced by positive representations delivered by migrants who fulfil gendered and moral expectations. This leads migrants who ‘fail’ to experience this as a personal failure, rather than as due to weak laws regarding labour conditions and migration processes. As a result, many villagers expect that piety and diligence will guarantee them success if they migrate, and the fear of shame deters many struggling migrants from returning home.

Carol Chan (zic4@pitt.edu) is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.   

Inside Indonesia 123: Jan-Mar 2015


#3 +2 Jessica 2016-01-15 19:48
This article helps to explain something I heard from a safe migration service worker, who said that virtually 100% of young women migrating from a particular area to Saudi Arabia experienced rape. I asked why those who return do not warn other young women. He explained that the returnees would not tell other community members what befell them. He also explained that it would be immoral for migration service programs to provide sex education or contraception since it could be seen as encouraging sexual misconduct. How many children are born abroad to women migrants as a result of abuse? This article helps to deepen conversation about the costs and benefits of migration to individuals and the nation.
#2 +2 Ari 2016-01-12 08:32
Great piece of research and a really interesting read.

I wonder to what extent the education programs that migrant workers undertake before they head abroad help them cope with some of the challenges? I understand many are now informed of their rights and taught how to stand up for themselves against difficult employers.

Perhaps there's also scope to better inform people that stay in the kampungs about what's really happening on the ground in destination countries.
#1 +2 Ilse Corydon 2016-01-11 23:59
A most insightful report on the status of Indonesian migrant workers, I feel more can and should be done to empower these workers with systematic oversight, either under some bilateral agreement, or contractually stipulated, as potential retribution against overseas employers who, in cases of abuse or other conflicts, could be held accountable. Typically, in some cultures, taboos are not openly expressed or reported -- all the more reason to institute an "ombudsman" for the underdog, i.e. the migrant worker. After all, upon return to their homeland from a failed job assignment, female workers are less likely to be accepted back in their communities with credibility of their personal accounts.

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