When Albert told me of how he had tried for five years to find a decent job, he had just returned from Jakarta and was on the run from the police. He had been in a fight with a police officer in a nightclub there, and they were looking for him. The 25-year-old man from Tabue village in South Central Timor district (Timor Tengah Selatan, or TTS) had spent three years in Jakarta working as a debt collector – a job he had never expected to find himself doing. ‘The first day on the job in Jakarta, my debt collector group fought with another group from Madura. I just hid though, scared that I would die. One of my friends was bleeding from his head, slashed by a machete,’ he told me.
Albert wanted to find another job, but this proved incredibly difficult. Trying to find information about other work was not easy, given that most of his friends also worked as debt collectors. Albert said, ‘Even though the job was dangerous, I had no other choice. It was a job that I could get with my education. I chose to stay rather than go back to the village. In the village, finding a job is even more difficult.’
Stories of young people struggling to find work may not be uncommon, but the struggle is far greater for those who come from communities with low levels of education in poorer regions – such as East Nusa Tenggara (Nusa Tenggara Timur, or NTT), the second-poorest province in Indonesia. Sadly, young people like Albert are often invisible in the policy debates on poverty and development.
After finishing (or dropping out of) secondary school, people like Albert have limited resources and opportunities in their villages for making a living. Failing to find work in their home villages, young people migrate, seeking out opportunities in the major cities of Indonesia. But this hardly solves their problems. Sometimes, migration means that they end up having to make decisions and accept challenges that carry even greater risks. Some become ‘trapped’ in exploitative workplaces, where they receive no salary but work for more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
The strategies of relatively uneducated young people to find a job in their own village, and later in other areas through migration, demonstrate their high level of initiative to reach economic independence. However, the strategies they use also show that there is insufficient and ineffective support from government policies to help them gain employment.
No opportunities in the village
Albert came from a poor family. After completing junior high school (SMP), he worked with his parents until he was 20. But he only received a small share of the money from the farming – not enough to afford the things he desired. ‘I was a 20-year-old man, but still living with my parents, eating my parents’ food, asking my parents for money to buy cigarettes. I felt ashamed.’ He also wanted to buy a motorbike.
Albert realized that being financially dependent on his parents offered no future. So, he left farming and applied for work in local shops and restaurants, but was rejected at every place. He then found work as a driver’s assistant but was only paid around Rp.10,000 (A$1) per day, and had to share the work (and the pay) with three other young people who worked for the same driver. He quit after five months. When he could not find any other job, he decided to migrate. ‘A friend from outside my village offered me a job in Surabaya. I took it … There was nothing for me to do in my village anyway.’
Most of the less-educated young people I interviewed said that they wanted to have a job with a regular salary, and one that allowed them to buy clothes, a smartphone and a motorbike, and pay for the cost of building a house. However, they quickly realized that even these basic aspirations could barely be pursued in the villages where they were born and raised. A few jobs do exist in the formal sectors, such as the local civil service and banking. However, such jobs are out of reach for those who don’t have at least tertiary qualifications.
Many young people in poor regions try hard to find jobs, but opportunities are limited even in the informal sector. Local governments have made efforts to help people (though not specifically youth) to obtain work, but these efforts have been misdirected. Because the government classifies NTT as having ‘low labour competitiveness’, the programs are directed towards increasing capacity, typically by providing support for education and training in various skills, such as sewing or entrepreneurship. However, the government has not sufficiently addressed the link between programs in the education sector and the strategic development of the economy or employment opportunities in the provinces in which the programs are being rolled out. In fact, the capacity-building programs do not acknowledge employment distribution at all, and entrepreneurship programs for local residents are not backed up by support to help graduates gain access to the market to use their new knowledge.
For example, Amilia (25) is a young woman from TTS who, like Albert, left school after completing junior high school. In her village, the local government regularly held a number of training programs for people like Amilia, and she has participated in a sewing program. However, it didn’t help her to make a living. ‘After I completed the training, I was confused about what I could do afterward,’ she said. The government did not provide credit access or any other support to program alumni, to help them open a sewing business, for example. Nor is there a garment industry in the area where Amilia could apply for a job. So, Amilia wondered, why does the government provide these training programs?
As Amilia could not find any work other than helping her mother on her farm, she too decided to migrate to Surabaya. She said, ‘I want my own money. I can help my mum and my siblings if I work.’ In Surabaya, Amilia worked as domestic helper for a year, then moved to Bali to work as a shopkeeper. None of these jobs was related to the previous training she had received from the government.
A lack of resources, opportunities and government support made both Amilia and Albert decide to migrate, leaving behind their villages and their province. However, the future that awaits young rural migrants in their urban destinations is often even more uncertain and dire.
A starkly different reality
Albert first migrated to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city. A friend had told Albert that in Surabaya he could earn Rp.1.5 million per month working as a security guard in a café. But this was not true. ‘I ended up working as a housekeeper and was treated like a slave. I was not paid, could not leave the house, was not allowed to use a cellphone, and worked from 4am to 12pm,’ Albert said. Six months after he started working, he finally managed to ‘escape’, and he went to Jakarta.
Arriving in Jakarta with a limited education and few skills, Albert soon realised that his work options were still very limited, even in the informal sector. When he applied for a job in a shop, he discovered that applicants were required to have at least a high school education. Initially, he could not find any work and lived at a friend’s place. His friend also helped him with food.
After going jobless for two months, Albert ended up as a debt collector, a job he never imagined himself doing – and one that involves violence, especially in Jakarta. Albert not only collected money from debtors, but also acted as a security guard in land disputes. ‘Being a debt collector is like being a vigilante,’ Albert said, ‘Sometimes I had to protect my boss’s area of operation [from competitors], sometimes I had to be violent to collect debts.’ Searching for other work through his friendship networks was difficult because most of Albert’s friends also worked as debt collectors, or in informal sectors with similarly low incomes and poor working conditions.
Like Albert, Marko (27) is a young male from a village in TTS, and a junior high school graduate. He also decided to migrate after hearing a friend’s stories. ‘A friend had just returned from Kalimantan and he had a lot of money ... [he was] buying us food and cigarettes. He told me that working in Kalimantan was nice, not tiring, and well paid. I asked him to take me there.’ That day, Marko was very excited as he calculated that he could buy a motorbike after working for only a few months in Kalimantan.
Yet, upon arriving, Marko started working in a palm oil plantation and soon realised that it was almost impossible for him to buy a motorbike. ‘I was shocked. I was working in the middle of the forest for a low salary. The good salaries are only for those in certain positions. I had to wear a uniform and boots, which led to an injury and an infection.’ Because of this, he could not work for three months, during which he was not paid. So he purchased his daily needs, including his meals and cigarettes, on credit from the canteen. To avoid his mounting debt, he returned to his village, borrowing money from his brothers for the ticket home.
Albert and Marko left their villages following the lead of friends who had gone before them. They were expecting to find the safe and secure jobs they desired, but were met with a starkly different reality. Given their limited skills and education, finding work was just as hard as back home, but now they also faced a new range of challenges and the potentially serious risks terrible consequences associated with being far away from home in a large city. Attempts to find alternative work proved difficult due to the same problem that led them there in the first place: limited information networks that provide incomplete and inaccurate information.
Sharing incomplete information with their peers and families is one of the strategies young migrants employ to get permission from their parents to remain away from home. It is also a strategy for maintaining their social status as a successful young person among peers. When Albert was in Jakarta, his friends called to ask about his work. He only told them that the job was ‘flexible’. ‘I didn’t want to tell them about the dangerous fighting with other groups. I was afraid that if I told them, they would share it in the villages. I would be ashamed because working this job is like being a criminal,’ he explained, ‘Before leaving the village I told friends and family in the village that I would work at a hotel or cafe but it turned out that I worked like a criminal.’ Albert also lied to his parents, telling them that he worked in a market as a shopkeeper. He didn’t want his parents to think that he wasn’t successful or that was working in a rough job.
A ‘rational’ option?
Despite the fact that they are simply not working, the government continues to provide the same standard programs, such as basic work skills training. The continuation of such programs seems to be the result of routine and habit, rather than a serious effort to address underlying issues, such as the lack of opportunities in the outlying provinces and misinformation about work opportunities in other areas.
For young people who see no future in their home villages, leaving seems like a ‘rational’ option. But such choices often lead to further hardship and the kinds of dire situations faced by Albert and the other young migrants. What would make a real difference to the lives of these motivated job seekers is a more informed government that engaged in strategies that helped overcome the challenges – in substance rather than form – and identify opportunities to find their way into the world of work.
Fadhli Ilhami (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher for the AKATIGA Foundation based in Bandung, West Java. This article is based on an AKATIGA research project on Youth Migration Patterns in East Nusa Tenggara.
See the short documentary film, Mata Elang (Eagle's Eyes) (2016), on migrants from Eastern Indonesia trying to make a living is debt collectors in Jakarta.