Sunday, June 26, 2011

Suka Dan Duka Kehidupan Pahlawan Devisa: Challenges Facing Overseas Workers in Indonesia

Today’s post is inspired by the fate of Ruyati, an Indonesian national who was beheaded in Saudi Arabia last week for murdering her boss. Ruyati had allegedly been tortured, starved, and denied payment by her boss, which evidently drove her to commit her crime, but details are still sketchy. The government of Saudi Arabia has repeated flaunted established cannons of international relations (and law) by refusing to inform the government of Indonesia that Ruyati was to be executed or to provide any other information about the case. Consequently, Ruyati’s family only found out after the execution and was unable to provide legal and moral support. This story has provoked public outcry in Indonesia, but Ruyati is only one of dozens of Indonesians trapped by circumstances beyond their control in a far-off land.

Indonesia is a major international supplier of cheap labor, sending millions of people abroad each year (tenaga kerja Indonesia, TKI) to earn money working in low-skilled occupations such as construction and housekeeping. Nations like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia benefit from the cheap labor, because the Indonesians do work that other people aren't willing to do (or demand a higher wage to do). These migrant laborers generate billions of dollars a year in income, which is generally sent back to Indonesia as remittances. Remittances refers to money sent home by immigrants to support families, and is such an important part of the Indonesian economy that the migrant labors have publicly been declared pahlawan devisa, or "heroes of foreign exchange". Remittances have come to be viewed as an important part of development financing; in fact the total amount remitted by migrant laborers worldwide by far outweighs money provided by wealthy nations to developing countries as foreign aid. Remittances are now the second biggest inflow to many developing nations (behind foreign direct investment, FDI). According to the World Bank, remittances worldwide totaled $325 million in 2010. There are positive and negative aspects to this dynamic. Remittances are direct payments, and so they enter the economy without the complex (and expensive) bureaucratic and regulatory process that characterizes foreign aid. The decision as to how to spend the remittances is made at the lowest level rather than in the offices of NGOs and multi-lateral agencies. However, if a region receives too much money in the form of remittances it can increase inflation, because there are "too many dollars chasing too few goods".

But there is a human aspect as well (1), and the story of Ruyati and the countless others that constantly appear in the Indonesian media remind us of that. Migrant workers face a number of problems in their temporary homes, including
  • Discrimination. Migrant workers are often the target of prejudice and differential treatment in the hosting nation
  • Poor working and living conditions. Migrant workers are often forced to live in substandard and/or overcrowded conditions and often lack access to basic hygienic services
  • Physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Migrant workers frequently fall pray to abuse from bosses and rape/sexual assault is an all-to-frequent occurrence.
  • Deception and changing contractual obligations. A common tactic of human traffickers is to attract workers (especially females) with promises of jobs as housekeepers or care providers. However, once the potential workers reach the destination country they are forced into the sex industry.
  • Withheld pay or sudden pay deductions. Migrant workers often have their passports and other official documents withheld by their employers, essentially making them hostages. Moreover, in many cases the employer makes arbitrary deductions or completely withholds the employee's pay due to perceived and/or contrived failings.
  • Unfamiliarity with laws and policies of the hosting country. Migrant workers often cannot speak the language of the hosting country and thus have difficulties navigating the legal-bureaucratic system to lodge complaints or seek protection. Moreover, in many host countries, advocacy for migrant workers is lacking.
This is an important geography topic because geographers have always been interested in flows of people, money, and goods. Geographers are also interested in networks, and migrant laborers create networks of money and movement through their actions. Understanding these flows can help us situate them in their larger political and economic context and can help policy makers craft laws and programs to address the needs and concerns of migrants. Geographers classify migrants into two broad categories with some general but distinct characteristics: long-term and temporary. One of the main questions geographers ask about migration is why it happens. Migrants are generally motivated by two sets of factors: push factors and pull factors. These are pretty intuitive; push factors exist at the point of origin and serve to drive the migrants to seek better opportunities. Push factors would include low employment opportunities, poor environmental conditions, political repression, and so on. Pull factors occur at the destination country and attract people. These include work opportunities, freedom, etc. Push and pull factors generally work together to drive migration; that is, a combination of factors both at the origin and destination contribute to the decision to migrate. This concept was first published by Everett Lee in 1966 and has become part of the standard curriculum in introductory geography courses. I’ve included a diagram from the original article below; see my footnote for a description of intervening obstacles (2).

Ernest Ravenstein also formulate a number of general principles regarding migration in his seminal "Laws of Migration" in 1889. Among these general rules are:
  • Migration is a step-by-step process starting with places close by extending later to places further away
  • Most migrants move to places relatively close. This is generally interpreted to mean that most migration occurs internally (within the country) rather than externally (to foreign countries).
  • There is always a counter-current of return migration, but this return current is often weaker than people leaving.
  • Most migration involves movement from the countryside to the city
  • Females are more likely to migrate short distances, whereas males are more likely to travel longer distances.
There are different types of migration, and the applicability of these principles depends on the type of migration being discussed. For an interesting project, you can identify a nation that experiences significant in-migration or out-migration. Examples would include Mexico, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Can you locate data from the UN, the World Bank, or other online sources to determine the nature of the migration from these countries? Why does this migration occur, what does it tell us about the country, and what sorts of obstacles do the migrants face?

From this post we can understand how flows of migrants are an important part of the global economy. We can also understand the challenges faced by migrants, which gives us a better appreciation of what some people go through in the search for a brighter future.

(1) The picture to the right is of Sumiati, an Indonesian national working as a housekeeper in Saudi Arapia. Sumiati's boss used scissors to torture her. She ended up requiring urgent care at an emergency medical facility.

(2) In the past distance has been an important part of analysis of migrants, but “globalization” seems to have modified and even rendered obsolete traditional theories about the connection between distance and migrant flows. Through time-space compression globalization has made travel easier and cheaper, and it has also dampened the effect of “intervening obstacles”.


Lee, Everett. 1966. A Theory of Migration. Demography 3:1, pp47-57.

Ravenstein, Ernest. 1885. The Laws of Migration. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society XLVIII, part II: 183

Migrant Care Indonesia (in Indonesian)

1 comment:

  1. This topic is something I cannot relate to by experience. However it does remind me of a discussion by my geography teacher who spoke of Philipina/Philipino migrant workers and how they are treated in foreign countries. Philipina women working as maids in Hong Kong seems to go through similar abuse from employers and have horrible living conditions. I was given the impression that my teacher felt rather strongly about this because is is from the Philipines, so the energy he had while speaking of it transferred to me.