AsiaViews, Edition: 35/VII/December2010
SUMIATI?S lot in life has been truly pitiful. She left her poverty-stricken village in West Nusa Tenggara to work in faraway Saudi Arabia so she could earn some money to help out her family. What she got instead were severe beatings and inhuman treatment by her employers: her body covered with bruises and her upper lip cut with scissors.
Another domestic worker, Kikim Komalasari, from Cianjur, West Java, also went to this Middle Eastern country to seek a better livelihood. But she was not as lucky as Sumiati. News of her death was sent about a month ago to her family. Again and again, such abuse and atrocities against our migrant workers, keep on happening. In 2006, the government banned workers from being sent to Saudi Arabia, after many of them complained of so much mistreatment.
But when the anger and the shock had abated, the flow of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia was resumed, without any change or improvement in the system. Why then should we be shocked when these heroic ?sources of foreign exchange? are sent back, beaten and battered, once again? Faced with the recent case over Sumiati and Kikim, Manpower & Transmigration Minister Muhaimin Iskandar chose tightening the system instead of totally banning new groups of domestic workers from going to Saudi Arabia.
Muhaimin contends the moratorium would just cause an illegal trade of migrant workers, who would go under the guise of going for the umroh (minor haj pilgrimage) or as tourists. He cites the example of Malaysia, where Indonesian workers still continue to work there, posing as temporary visitors.
On Tuesday last week, Muhaimin spoke at length about the problem of Indonesian migrant workers with Tempo reporters Yandi M. Rofiyandi, Ninin Damayanti, Istiqomatul Hayati, Akbar Tri Kurniawan and photographer Jacky Rachmansyah, at his office. Excerpts:
Abuses towards our workers overseas are happening again.
Every day, every month and every year, we try to improve the ways in which we protect and serve them and how to handle their cases. We need to find out whether cases like this recent one happen because of some problems or whether we are just sending too many of them out there. Since 2002, I have been thinking that we need to take revolutionary measures because this problem keeps recurring. We have imposed a moratorium on Malaysia, which has reduced the numbers going there, but it has not been totally stopped.
So, why shouldn?t there be a moratorium on sending workers to Saudi Arabia like there is for Malaysia?
We don?t know the details yet (of the case in Saudi Arabia?Ed.). The traffic and the culture in Malaysia are closer to ours so there?s no comparison. In Jordan, the last evaluation was quite effective but illegal migration continued because people could easily obtain visa on arrival. The numbers went down significantly, resulting in quite a few of these placement companies going bankrupt, including those in Kuwait. In Saudi Arabia, the business is quite big, involving about 2,500 workers a day. So the public should not be emotional about this. A moratorium can cause workers to go and seek work overseas illegally. The solution to this problem must be extra-systemic. I haven?t decided whether to impose a moratorium or not.
What would be the downside of a moratorium?
A moratorium would be more as a remedial solution. There must be certainty in the timeframe and discretion. During this process, all exits must be tightly guarded. In Malaysia, many workers enter on tourist visas. During this moratorium, we must also seek a solution inside the country and how to provide alternative work. I once met a regent, many whose residents work overseas. Every day, the transactions in his local banks totaled about Rp1 billion.
Why doesn?t the government have a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia on migrant workers?
The Saudi government considers the business of workers as a private sector enterprise. Issues involving workers come under the authority of the Ministry of Manpower and Internal Affairs. I have requested many times to meet with officials to discuss this problem and they always respond they will think about it. We met with the Saudi Manpower Minister in Geneva during an International Labor Organization (ILO) event. He said, ?Come on, trust our laws, there is no need for an MoU.? Saudi Arabia does not have agreements with any country. If Indonesia asks for an MoU, the Philippines and other workers-exporting countries will also ask for such agreements. So, they just promise to help in the monitoring and so on.
Why should you trust the Saudis when many of the cases over there are never legally resolved and the abusive employers are protected?
We are investigating whether those are facts. There are laws applicable to crimes. Some Arabs I know tell me that 50 percent of the beheading involve Saudis and the rest are foreigners from different countries. To be honest, I have a difficult time getting significant data. That is why, while we tighten conditions, we should also do some investigation.
Monitoring workers in Saudi Arabia seems more complicated than in other countries
This is the domestic sector. Households over there are closed. Another problem is the workers? access outside their places of work. Before they head off to their country of work, they are given the telephone numbers of the Manpower Ministry, the National Agency for Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNPPTKI) and Indonesian embassies in the host country. Yet, when they get there, they are not able to use their cellphones.
So, what is the government?s reason for providing workers with cellphones?
We plan to include a clause in every work contract, saying that Indonesian workers have the right to own and use a cellphone. If we don?t try to make agreements like, what else can we do? We can?t allow this to go on. If there is an agreement, at least they (the workers) will have access. One ideal solution would be to create a special dormitory for these workers. But the government over there has not given its approval.
Should there also be a fit-and-proper test for prospective employers?
We are thinking of imposing conditions on people employing our workers. For example, the location of the home, the number of family members where the workers are going to must be known before the workers start work for them. There can be no relocation outside of the contract. In the fit-and-proper test in Saudi, information on the employers must be attached to the work agreement. If the information on the prospective employer is unavailable, the contract should not be approved.
Our diplomatic influence on Saudi Arabia seems to be weakening.
It is not weakening. We can easily say that Indonesian workers don?t need to leave for Saudi Arabia. Then we should wait for the results of the investigation and have the cabinet decide on a solution, like imposing a moratorium or tightening the oversight process. Or we can charge the travel agency which sent them there to be punished to death, since their business could be categorized as human trafficking. The travel bureaus offering umroh services must be regulated by the government. But I ask everyone to think comprehensively. The government really plans to come up with some calculations. I am convinced that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages of sending workers overseas.
The government thinks sending workers to Saudi Arabia is beneficial?
The government is trying to find a balanced solution, between bringing justice to workers who have problems and to those who have actually succeeded. And for that there are benefits and disadvantages. Imagine if the cases represent only 0.8 percent of the workers, that means many of them are being disadvantaged. We will really ban our workers from working as domestics if that would be one way of stopping human trafficking. So, our position right now is that we are still doing our calculations.
The government seems to think we need Saudi Arabia more than the other way around.
I have discussions every day about this, calculating the demands of the Saudis for our domestic workers. This should be our negotiating points. Even if we implement a total moratorium, we will find out the impact of such a measure. We have not reached a conclusion yet. To be honest, the weakness of our bureaucracy is the lack of data. The biggest obstacle to this work is updating the data. For example, exactly how many Saudis need our domestic workers, how dependent are the Saudis on their workers? Our data is weak so I don?t want to debate about data. And I?m wondering whether we need a third party to help in our investigation, particularly in collecting data.
The government is seen as having no concept on how to manage and guide workers.
It?s not what we don?t have a concept. During my days, the following steps were taken. First, we required workers to have at least 200 hours of training. This was the solution following the Constitutional Court?s verdict which erased the clause on the minimum training workers ought to have. Then there?s the coordination between the central and provincial governments; some guidance to be provided for communities where the official suppliers of the workers are located. At the place where they will embark, we also try to provide more training for the workers. Our weakness is still in the oversight, such as over the forgery of training documents.
What is the evaluation on the cases of our abused workers?
We cannot deny that the flows and the benefits are far bigger. Imagine, a worker with a low level of education, getting the opportunity to earn big money. It?s difficult, that kind of salary here. The government doesn?t have the right to hinder or ban them from migrating. That?s the first principle. Citizens with whatever capacity cannot be prevented from working in the place of their choice. We keep on working so that no space can be abused by any ill-intended company.
What is the government doing to reduce the number of workers in the informal sector?
We are going in that direction, in reducing workers in the informal sector, like domestic workers and expanding the formal sector. The profession of domestic workers is very important. The principle is the same as employees in hotels who clean the rooms and so forth. They will always be in demand, particularly by rich people. That kind of work has its market and that market cannot be obstructed by anyone. If the market is disturbed, a human rights violation will be committed. That obstruction can only boomerang because it can create an illegal market.
To what extent should protection for workers be in the form of workers insurance?
According to Law No. 39, workers must be protected by insurance, of which the type and model are to be determined by the minister. During Pak Erman?s time, there were nine consortiums to do this. One consortium had 10 kinds of insurance. I was unable to manage the data covering the nine consortiums. The workers don?t know how to manage claims, and they become the victims of swindles carried out between the companies supplying the workers and the insurance companies. The minister?s regulations on insurance are a bit restrictive. So, I chose one consortium.
Why appoint one consortium without tendering it?
Because this is not the state?s money and we only regulate it. This was completed in September. I haven?t checked who has made the claims, and we evaluate it every three months. The kind of insurance selected is the one that is easy to file claims for, uncomplicated, and if there is a major accident, that compensation would be immediately paid. In order to do that, the company must be in good condition. The US$40-premium is paid by the worker before she leaves for her overseas two-year assignment. The Workers Agency (PJTKI) was so upset it went to the Business Competition Supervisory Commission. Actually those who got mad were people whom I did not appoint, so this only reinforced indications that there is something between the suppliers and the insurance companies.
How do you answer to charges that this insurance scheme is designed to benefit the ministry?
I am not in the team. But that can be checked and the public can find out about the criteria that goes with each evaluation. It?s like a tender, but because it doesn?t involve state money, it is semi-tendered or it?s like a beauty contest done through a selection team. The entire process is open.
How do you intend to inform workers overseas about this new insurance scheme?
That?s what has made me mad for months. Those insurance companies and the nine consortiums I dismissed made so much money, but they have not done any socialization. They should be informing workers about their rights to having insurance. If the insurance companies don?t pay the claims, I will go after them. Today, it?s healthier, more transparent and online. I also get to know about the workers who leave and who come back. This insurance scheme has many benefits.
Can regulations covering workers in the informal sector be included in the Law on Domestic Workers?
We keep on improving the law, but we have not yet found a standardization process, for instance on the minimum wage. The employers of domestic staff have limited salaries. Some even see this as going into the Criminal Code and the Law on Domestic Workers. We have not decided whether to reject or accept it. We will wait for the House of Representatives? initiative and see where it takes us.
A Muhaimin Iskandar, MSi
Place & Date of Birth
Jombang, East Java, September 24, 1966
- State Madrasah Tsanawiyah in Jombang (1979-1982)
- State Madrasah Aliyah inYogyakarta (1982-1985)
- Faculty of Social Sciences, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta (1985-1992)
- Faculty of Communications, University of Indonesia, Jakarta (1996-1998)
- Lecturer, Denanyar Pesantren in Jombang (1980-1983)
- Secretary, Institute of Islamic & Social Studies, Yogyakarta (1989)
- Division Chief, Research on General Research Institute, Jakarta (1992-1993)
- Director, Institute of Research and Development of Detik Tabloid (1993)
- Hellen Keller International (1998)
- Deputy Speaker of the DPR (House of Representatives) (1999-2009)
- Secretary-General, PKB (National Awakening Party), Jakarta (1998-2005)
- Head of the Tanfidz Council of PKB Executive Board (2005-2010)
- Minister of Manpower & Transmigration (2009-to date)
By: Yandi M. Rofiyandi, Ninin Damayanti, Istiqomatul H
Tempo No. 14/XI/ 01-07 December 2010 photo: Jacky Rachmansyah for Tempo