Giving Voice to Migrant Workers

Giving Voice to Migrant Workers

Sumbawa, a rural region in eastern Indonesia, offers residents little opportunity to make a living, and many migrate to neighboring Malaysia and Singapore for work.

“If we don’t go, we don’t have a job,” says Pak Syamsul, who worked in Malaysia for more than two decades before returning to Sumbawa. “There really isn’t much employment here. Nothing. That’s why people leave.”

Globally, there are an estimated 232 million migrants in the world, the overwhelming majority who migrate for work. More than 6 million Indonesians work abroad, and in 2013, their remittances to their families brought $7.4 billion into the Indonesian economy.

Each of those migrant workers has a story, and a new film by JustJobs takes a close-up look at those who, like Syamsul, travel far to support their families. “Pulang Pergi” (“Going Home to Leave Again”), based on research supported by the Solidarity Center, illustrates the cost and opportunities for migrant workers and their communities.

Faisa Trisnawati, 27, is among those who migrated for a job. She worked two years in Jordan and six years in Saudi Arabia, financially unable to pursue her dream of higher education.

“I think a lot about the future, about my children, because I myself couldn’t get an education,” says Trisnawati, as her 4-year-old daughter, Nabila, played nearby. “My aspirations were never realized. I want my children to be able to accomplish anything. Not like me, becoming a migrant worker abroad …”

Working as a farmer in Sumbawa is impossible, she says, because the cost of renting land and buying supplies would exceed income. Rich with agricultural potential, Sumbawa highlights the complex and often conflicting pressures underlying global labor migration, a region that received $1.4 million in remittances in 2013 and where its residents are forced to leave.

The Solidarity Center is supporting research on key migrant worker rights issues–examining how workers migrate and under what terms–both of which are critical questions for global economic and social development. As a worker rights organization, we seek to advance labor migration that promotes shared prosperity by lifting up and empowering workers in both origin and destination countries.​

Migrant Workers Vulnerable, Exploited Across the Globe

From the moment Yani arrived in Malaysia for her job as a domestic worker, she toiled for a solid year with no break. Her day started at 4 a.m. and went long into the night, seven days a week, as she cleaned and took care of her employer’s child. Yani eventually became too ill to work, and her employer sent her back to her labor agent in Indonesia. The agent deducted two months’ salary from Yani to pay for her trip back home and abandoned Yani at a port, ill with hepatitis and far from her home. When Yani eventually made it to her village, she had $1 left, just enough for a plate of rice.

Yani is one of 400,000 workers from the Indonesian archipelago who leave their homes every year in search of jobs to support themselves and their families. Globally, up to 100 million people are working outside their home countries, nearly half of them women. Migrant workers contribute to the economies of their host countries, and the remittances they send home help to boost the economies of their countries of origin. Yet migrant workers often enjoy little social protection and are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. Many, like Yani, also are exploited by unscrupulous labor agents.

Today, International Migrant Workers Day, shines a light on the plight of migrant workers. Many toil in domestic work, in agrculture, manufacturing and the service sector. But as several upcoming world sporting events highlight, these high-profile competitions often are built on the backs of poor and vulnerable workers, particularly migrant workers and especially those working in construction.

Currently three countries are preparing for major global sporting events—and workers in all three countries have experienced worker rights violations.

  • Workers from impoverished Brazilian states who traveled to Saõ Paulo to work on an airport expansion project in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup faced “slave-like” conditions, according to a recent government investigation. The 111 workers, including six ethnic Pankaruru indians, were living in poor accommodations near the building site and some had paid more than $220 to secure a job.
  • More than 80 migrant construction workers in Qatar who worked for nearly a year without pay on an office tower in Dohat are facing serious food shortages and need urgent government assistance, according to an Amnesty International report released today. The 60 Nepalese workers as well as migrants from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nigeria, China and Bangladesh, have been fitting out the 38th and 39th floors of a building dubbed “Qatar’s Home of Football” because football-related organizations have offices there.
  • Russia’s new law migrant labor law gives employers free rein on how to employ migrant workers without consideration of labor standards. Russian media reports have cited that the “FIFA Law” contravenes the country’s Constitution. Russia is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.

The Solidarity Center has partnered with workers, trade unions, governments and civil society coalitions around the world to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, prosecution and protection. These steps include educating workers who plan to work abroad about labor laws and workplace rights in their origin and destination countries; promoting union-run legal aid, counseling and information centers; and helping to draft and pass improved anti-trafficking and safe migration legislation.

Follow International Migrants Day on Twitter with the hashtag #IamAMigrant.

Check out the non-profit anti-trafficking organization, ATEST.

Indonesia: Workers Set for Second Nationwide Strike

November 4, 2013—Indonesian workers are planning a second round of nationwide protests for better wages, likely beginning November 6, according to the Jakarta Labor Forum.

After 3 million workers last week went on a two-day strike across the country, the government raised the minimum wage by between 10 percent and 11 percent, well short of the amount workers are seeking in an economy where inflation is expected to rise by 9 percent next year. Indonesian workers are calling for higher wages to match those of other Asian countries as foreign direct investment flows into the region’s biggest economy. Workers also want an end to job outsourcing.

In an editorial supporting the workers, the Jakarta Post wrote that “workers live in virtual poverty even while the minimum wage is described as a ‘decent standard of living.’”

The editorial quoted Jumisih, a union leader from North Jakarta’s industrial area, who said: “Renting a small space … with several others, with no ventilation in a squalid area is not decent.”

At least 17 workers were attacked during last week’s rallies, according to the Confederation of Indonesian Worker’s Union (KSPI). The union said the workers were hospitalized after receiving wounds from sharp weapons and four are in critical condition. KSPI is calling for an end to such attacks.

Indrasari Tjandraningsih, a labor researcher at AKATIGA, the Center for Social Analysis, maintains that workers’ demands to ban outsourcing are also supported by data on the widespread exploitative and degrading practices.

In an opinion piece in today’s Jakarta Post, he writes: “When workers demand social security they refer to both the Constitution and the law on social security. All these show that workers’ demands are not irrational but have solid grounding. This state of affairs should be understood in a more positive context: Indonesian workers are getting more aware of their rights and also have more capability to see problems in a comprehensive and objective manner.”


Indonesian Unions Hold Two-Day National Strike

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesian workers started a two-day national strike today demanding the government institute a fair minimum wage, end rampant employer violations of labor outsourcing and speed up implementation of a universal health care law. Several unions conducted rallies over the three days leading up to the national mobilization to increase public awareness of the effort.

Union workers also are calling for passage of a national law protecting domestic worker rights and repeal of a recently passed law widely criticized for its apparent aim to restrict the freedoms of civil society organizations.

Speaking on behalf of a coalition of unions participating in the action, Indonesian Trade Union Confederation president Said Iqbal said,”We have been compelled to take to the streets since the government and employers have been unwilling to seek solutions to these issues with us in good faith.”

Indonesian unions also held a national strike in October 2012, pushing similar demands. Policymakers took swift action to engage labor leaders to find solutions in the days and weeks following that strike. Provincial minimum wages, for example, were increased around the country by an average of 30 percent and a new regulation on labor outsourcing was issued that largely met union demands.

Unions say that last year’s wage increases, although significant, fell well short of a decent wage and that the new labor outsourcing regulation has not yet been implemented.


Indonesia: Worker Solidarity Gets Results

A strike by 2 million blue-collar Indonesian workers over wages and job outsourcing resulted in government promises to improve worker pay and restrict the use of workers subcontracted through labor agencies.

The one-day walkout in October halted work on more than 80 industrial “estates” (sites) mainly throughout Java and the island of Batam, across from Singapore. Union leaders vowed to press ahead with industrial action if the government did not take action. In response, Chief Economics Minister Hatta Rajassa said the government would seek to increase worker pay and issue a new regulation designed to better enforce rules regarding subcontracting.

In Indonesia, where 16 million workers—roughly 40 percent of the country’s formal labor force—are labor agency employees, “outsourcing” is similar to U.S. subcontracting practices. But there are key differences. In Indonesia, outsourced workers are recruited by third-party agencies or individuals to work on production lines side by side with a company’s employees. Their “employer” is the middleman, who takes a cut out of each pay check. The worker often receives less than the minimum wage and no benefits.

Manpower and Transmigration Minister Muhaimin Iskandar has said he will facilitate meetings between employers and labor unions to solve these crucial issues.  He also said he would ensure that employers comply with laws covering outsourcing and wages so the country would be a better place for the workers and foreign investors.

Mudhofir, president of the Confederation of Indonesian Prosperous Labor Unions (KSBSI), said that the strike was unavoidable because the government had breached a September 15 deadline set by union leaders to review outsourcing practices and revise the wage system. But workers now plan to wait and see if the government acts on its promises. According to Said Iqbal, president of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions (KSPI), “We are not planning any more strikes…until after dialogue with the government and the employer associations. Then we’ll see if the results are satisfactory.”

Wages in Indonesia, which are among the lowest in South Asia, are a draw for labor-intensive manufacturers. Union leaders say Indonesian minimum wages have never been sufficient for workers to support themselves and their families. Annual minimum wage hikes over the past decade have not kept up with inflation, and workers’ purchasing power is declining every year. During the strike, workers called for the government to speed up implementation of last year’s new social safety net law that, in part, mandates health care coverage to all Indonesians.

The strike also moved local governments to act. West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan circulated a notice informing regents and mayors about work contracts, including the use of the outsourcing system. Batam’s local government and the Batam Free Trade Zone Authority (BPK-FTZ) have agreed to no longer promote low-wage labor to investors who wish to do business in Batam. Instead, they will promote the quality of human resources, manpower and infrastructure, according to news reports.

The strike fostered employer discussions around worker rights.  In news reports, business leaders said the government must guarantee that workers receive social benefits, including health insurance, even if they are outsourced and short-term contract laborers.

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