Imas Tati still can’t walk properly or stand up for long without a cane. When she moves from one spot to another, she has to grab onto something for support.
“When I fell from the second floor, I hit the ground feet-first,” she says. “My ankles were shattered. I don’t know when I can walk properly again.”
That incident occurred in October 2009 in Kuwait, where Imas was employed as a domestic worker. She fell trying to escape from her employer, who the night before had tried to rape her. It was the second such attempt, Imas said.
During her five-month stay in a Kuwaiti hospital, she met an official from the Indonesian Embassy who was looking in on another worker.
“When I asked him for help, he said it was my agent’s responsibility because after the accident I had gone directly to the hospital and not reported to the embassy first,” the 23-year-old recalled.
Imas’s tale is just one story in the litany of harrowing experiences the Indonesian migrant workers often go through.
The vast majority of Indonesia’s four million migrant workers end up in Malaysia or Saudi Arabia. In Malaysia, nearly 2,000 were victims of physical abuse, and 1,200 of sexual abuse in 2011, according to data from Migrant Care.
Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care, says the government needs to do more to protect its workers overseas. Legislation was passed in 2004 on the placement and protection of migrant workers, but activists are urging amendments, particularly on the issue of protection.
After years of campaigning, a breakthrough was achieved in April when the House of Representatives ratified the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The move obliges the House to pass legislation complying with the provisions of the convention.
“The international convention should be taken as a new standard [for protection],” Anis says. “In the past, we didn’t have any and it only hurt our migrant workers.”
She added that some points from the convention can be achieved through amendments to the 2004 law.
One would entail phasing out the migrants-only terminal at the Selapajang Airport in Banten. In the future, Anis says, migrant workers should be allowed to depart from any airport near their hometown.
The second point is that migrant workers should have the same right as other Indonesian citizens in getting access to legal support, while the third is for the government to ensure full protection for the workers by taking over the work of private worker placement agencies, or PPTKIS, and becoming the sole authority to train workers and send them abroad.
Fina binti Ciing, 26, was one of the countless migrant workers who went through a cursory training program provided by a PPTKIS. Although the course lasted for a month, she says she learned very little and spent most of her time just “eating and sleeping” until her departure.
“If PPTKIS are still allowed to operate, they should be classified as travel agencies, not placement agencies,” she said.
Migrant Care contends that if the government takes over the responsibility for training and placement, the workers will be in a much better bargaining position.
And because the state will be fully responsible for the workers, officials will no longer be able to pin the blame on private agencies if something goes wrong.
“Another important point is to review all 19 government bodies linked to migrant workers issues,” Anis says.
“These include the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Social Affairs Ministry and the police.
“The government needs to establish a single body focused on migrant workers.”
She also proposes a temporary halt to the sending of migrant workers out while the government prepares the transition and adopts the new standards.
Rieke Diah Pitaloka, a legislator with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), says the House is working on the points put forward by Migrant Care. She also promised a complete overhaul of the worker-protection law.
“The non-discrimination point has been accommodated. We’ve proposed that the government eliminate the special airport for migrant workers,” she says.
The new draft also gives local administrations a bigger role in training workers and verifying their skills and documents before they leave.
Ideal versus viable
However, Rieke says that the call to phase out PPTKIS will not be viable.
“Is the PPTKIS the root of all of the problems?” she asked. “What the government needs to do is to monitor these private agencies very closely. Only those that meet stringent requirements should be allowed to send workers abroad.”
Rieke agrees that the government should be the sole sender of workers, but points out that “we have to draft a law based not just on what would be ideal, but what can be applied.”
Mahfudz Siddiq, a legislator from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), says it is also important to have better coordination between the manpower and foreign ministries.
The current lack of coordination, he says, leads the two ministries to blame each other when problems arise involving migrant workers.
Reyna Usman, director general of labor placement and development at the Manpower Ministry, says her office fully supports the revision of the 2004 law and the call for the government to play a bigger role in the training and placement process.
But she says further discussion between the House and government is needed on the proposal to make the government the sole authority to send migrant workers abroad.
Tatang Razak, the director for citizen protection overseas at the Foreign Ministry, also says that drawing up a new protection framework is important and should involve the input of all stakeholders.
“We should examine all possibilities. If [sending migrant workers] will be more effective and efficient under the government, then why not?” he said.
He notes that the 2004 law has some good points, including obliging PPTKIS to notify Indonesian embassies on any workers they send to a given country, but that the compliance remains weak. Thus better enforcement is needed if the new law is to work any better.
Getting the word out
Fina and Imas know nothing about the recently-ratified convention or the new legislation expected to protect future migrant workers.
Fina says she never felt like she had any protection to fall back on when she worked in Saudi Arabia. She was there for only five months, leaving after enduring physical abuse and 21-hour work days.
She reported it to the agency.
“When my employer hit me with a plank of wood, I reported it to my agency in Riyadh but they told me to get back to my employer’s house and work,” she said.
Syaipul Anas, from Migrant Care’s legal desk, says the organization is working to spread the news about the convention and ensure that migrant workers are aware of their rights and the protections afforded to them.
But for those like Imas, whose prospects of ever walking unaided look grim, the new measures have come far too late.