Indonesia: Tough Times for Returning Labor Migrants

JAKARTA, 14 May 2009 (IRIN) — For Risti Ariyani, the dream of working abroad and helping her family is over.

Her contract with a computer components factory in Malaysia was abruptly cancelled because of the global financial crisis, leaving her no choice but to return home to Central Jaffa Province.

“My family was counting on me,” the 20-year-old said.  “Everyone, including my sisters now in school, depended on the money I sent back.”

In 2008, some 200,000 Indonesian nationals were sent home from Malaysia because of the recession.

Most come from rural areas of the world’s fourth most populous nation where poverty is particularly rife.

“Due to the global crisis, I see more migrant workers from other sectors returning,” Choirul Hadi, secretary-general of the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Trade Union, told IRIN.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 migrants were now returning through Jakarta’s Sukarno Hatta international airport every day, he said, with serious implications for thousands of families.

The subsequent drop in remittances will likely squeeze families — many of whom were already living on the edge — even harder.

Earlier this year, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warned that the financial crisis threatened to undermine the government’s ability to meet its poverty reduction and employment targets.

A large segment of the population was vulnerable to shocks and at risk of falling below, or further below the poverty line, a 31 March statement read.

“You can only imagine the impact this will have,” Albert Bonasahat, national project coordinator for the International Organization for Labor (ILO), told IRIN, noting the importance of remittances not just on the immediate family, but the extended family as well.

“This will, of course, stop the development of the local economy,” he said.

Eighty percent of labor migrants are the only breadwinner for their families, with the vast majority women from poor rural families, he added.

Upfront Costs

Yet for those who only recently went abroad to work, including Risti Ariyani, retrenchment can be particularly bitter.

Many had borrowed heavily to pay agent fees and other charges to secure their employment and have had the least amount of time working to recoup those costs.

When work visas are cancelled, there is little chance of a refund.

The government estimates there are approximately 2.7 million documented Indonesian migrant workers working overseas, while the number of undocumented workers could be four times that.

Dependency on Remittances

Approximately 700,000 documented migrant workers go overseas annually to help their families and send back much-needed remittances — a policy the government has actively supported.

According to the World Bank, the registered remittances Indonesian migrant workers send home account for more than US$6 billion annually, comprising the second-highest source of income after oil and gas.

In some provinces, including East Java and Nusa Tenggara Barat, they are the primary source of income, even surpassing government assistance levels.

Most families use the money for daily household expenditures such as food and other necessities.

A scene at the Sukarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta. Thousands of Indonesian women leave their homes each year to work as domestic workers abroad. Photo: David Swanson/IRIN.

Aksi piket IMWU, 21 September 2008

Of the 400 respondents surveyed for a study in five Indonesian provinces (Lampung, West Java, Central Java, East Java, and West Nusa Tenggara) in December 2008-January 2009, on average, 37 percent of the migrant workers’ families were fully dependent on remittances for their family’s income, while in West Nusa Tenggara that level of dependency was 86 percent.

Alongside the Philippines and Sri Lanka, Indonesia is one of the few Asian countries that deploy more female than male migrant workers, most of whom have a low level of education and work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.

About 80 percent of all Indonesian migrant workers are women, mostly domestic workers.  Some 60 percent are in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Jordan, and Qatar, with the rest in Asia Pacific, including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The ILO projects up to 52 million jobs worldwide could be destroyed by the global economic crisis in 2009.

This article was first published by IRIN