Faiza Mardzoeki

Govt ignores Indonesian debt slaves’ plight

The planned deportation of more than 400,000 Indonesian workers from Malaysia only reinforces their status as debt slaves. Malaysia now has almost 2 million Indonesian guest workers with legal status and another 500,000 without the proper documents. Malaysia’s new laws on foreign workers, and the Indonesian government’s pathetic acceptance of these laws almost without any protest, buries most of the deported workers in even greater debt, making them even more the slaves of Malaysian plantation and construction companies and Indonesian labor agencies.
The new Malaysian law has forced them to leave Malaysia. But most of them want to return to Malaysia. There is still work there, while there is no work in their home provinces in Indonesia. As Malaysia’s construction sector faced the threat of coming to a halt, it, at least for now, has discontinued the planned deportation.
More than 100,000 Indonesians working on the plantations and construction sites in Sabah have recently passed through the tiny island of Nunukan, in East Kalimantan. According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Labor, there are more than 50,000 deportees now in Nunukan, a district of only 30,000 local inhabitants. Most of these workers originally come from provinces like Flores and South Sulawesi, as well as from Java.
I visited Nunukan for a week in early August to gather data for Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity) and Solidaritas Buruh Migran Indonesia (Solidarity for Indonesian Migrant Workers). I spoke to many of these workers, many of them thin from malnutrition and hard work. In every case, they told a story of debt bondage. Working in Malaysian plantations without documents, they were already subject to harassment and exploitation by employers. Many are paid only between 6 to 8 Malaysian ringgit a day, when most surveys state that one needs 15 ringgit per day for a decent life.
Most of them quickly fall into debt to their employer, binding them to conditions of long hours and low wages.
The new wave of forced deportations only deepens this indebtedness. Almost all the workers I spoke to explained that they had to borrow money, usually around 150 ringgit, from their employers so that they could buy food and other basic needs on their journey to Nunukan, and for their first few days on the island. That money was to be paid back later through deductions from the workers 6 ringgit per day.
But the deportation indebtedness goes deeper than that. To have new documents issued and while they wait for that to happen, the fate of the workers is surrendered to the various labor agencies. They find “accommodation”, if you can call it that, for some of the workers.
More than 10,000 were crowded under the tarpaulin shelters along the main road at Sungai Bolong provided by labor agency, PT Kaltim. All the workers living under PT Kaltim’s tarpaulin were getting into deeper debt. They would be billed by the agency for the “shelter” as well as the two miserable meals of salted fish and scrawny vegetables.
Still, if they wanted to bathe in the temporary bathrooms at the back of the nearby markets, they needed to pay Rp 2,000 per person. To go to the toilet costs Rp 1,000.
On top of that, they would need to borrow more money for their passports, for passport photographs and everything else required by the bureaucratic process.
But all the effort still falls upon the workers themselves. I stood outside the Nunukan Immigration Office and watched the thousands of workers line up to see the Immigration officials.
The tiny office at Nunukan usually handles 800 applicants per day. They had received not a single extra staff member from Jakarta, but they managed to get through 1,300 people per day. But still thousands milled around outside the office desperate for their papers.
Most workers said that they ended up with debts of between 1,200 and 1,500 Malaysian ringgit to the agency on top of the 150 ringgit debt to their employer.
And then in 12 months time it was time to renew documents and the whole indebtedness process started again.
The new Malaysian laws are not immigration laws but laws entrenching debt slavery. The Indonesian government’s acquiescence in this policy is acquiescence in the debt bondage of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian citizens.
In fact, there is obviously no need for these laws at all. After all, most of the workers are going to return to Malaysia. Why did they need to leave Malaysia in the first place? Their documents could have been much more easily renewed in Malaysia itself. In today’s world, there are more and more people seeking work outside their own countries, especially where their own countries are mismanaged by their governments and exploited by foreign interests.
That is why there are almost 2.5 million Indonesians working in Malaysia. So the Indonesian and Malaysian government have a responsibility to ensure that these workers are guaranteed their rights and not turned into slaves.
The Indonesian government should demand the repeal of the new laws in Malaysia. Indonesia should seek a new arrangement whereby Indonesian workers in Malaysia can renew their documents without leaving Malaysia. All Indonesian illegal workers in Malaysia should be granted an amnesty now and helped to arrange for new documents.
Meanwhile the 50,000 Indonesian workers in Nunukan need urgent aid. The special health post set up to service the tens of thousands of deported debt slaves has only two doctors. The local health center, which has to service also the whole of Nunukan’s own inhabitants, has only seven doctors. Already at least 22 people have died, as confirmed by a physician of the Nunukan health center and a volunteer of the Nusa Tenggara Community Association. There were only 10 tents supplied by the government. There is an emergency in Nunukan but there is no emergency response. Shelter, more doctors and nurses, and proper food is needed urgently.
In fact, a government that really cared about its citizens and did not want them to become exported slave laborers would do even more. It would provide free food for them while they renewed their documents and it would waive all passport and other bureaucratic fees. In that way, all these hard working Indonesians would be able to return to Malaysia to work free of the debt that is enslaving them.
At the moment, the Malaysian government collects a head tax on every migrant worker. The agencies collect their fees from the migrant workers. The Indonesian bureaucracy receives its fees and tribute. The Indonesian workers seeking a livelihood overseas find themselves as debt slaves.

Opinion and Editorial The Jakartapost- August 24, 2002

Faiza Mardzoeki  (Coordinator, Organization and Education Women’s Solidarity [SP], Jakarta)