Six Million Indonesian Women Now Working Abroad; Families Struggle

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The number of women leaving Indonesia, legally or illegally, has been steadily climbing over the past decade, according to the National Authority for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers.

An estimated six million Indonesian woman — some 90 percent of all Indonesian migrant labourers — are now working overseas, according to the authority.

Most go to the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Jordon and Qatar, with the rest are in Asia Pacific, including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

Many Indonesian villages are left with a shortage of women. Men, such as Edin in Cimanggu village, in a rural farming community on Java Island, sometimes assume the role of a single parent for years at a time.

“It’s very difficult. I have to be very patient to raise them. The grandparents cannot take care of them, so it’s only me,” said Edin, who has two teenagers.

His wife worked in Saudi Arabia for almost seven years, enabling the couple to pay school fees and buy a motorcycle. But they still cannot afford their own land or a house, he said.

His wife returns in six months from what he hopes will be her last trip. “It is not worth it, I don’t want her to go again,” he said.

While their wives are away, many Indonesia men have been left to take care of their children alone.

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.

But this contribution comes at a significant cost to women and their families.

“Most of the women are in debt because of placement fees and travel costs they have to pay the [employment] agents. It sometimes takes them the first 16 months to pay the agents back,” said Yoko Doi, a specialist in migrant labour at the World Bank in Jakarta. “They also lack financial planning.”

For many, the desperately sought-after prosperity for which they sacrificed so much remains elusive.

Nine-year-old Zikiri’s mother has been working for more than two years in Saudi Arabia and left when his sister was still a baby. She has only sent money home once.

“His father was supposed to take care of him, but he could not do it. The kids were dirty and did not get enough food, so we brought them here,” said Ai Syamsiyah, Zikiri’s aunt.

Some migrant workers build big houses, but cannot afford the maintenance and are forced to go back to work abroad. But most of the money is spent on daily costs for schooling, food and transportation.

Wages abroad are low and the workload sometimes involves looking after entire families alone without holidays.

Women make the most in Hong Kong, earning almost $500 per month, while in Malaysia, they make less then $150, according to Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO.

But back home they make a fraction of that amount, and unemployment and poverty are rife.

The stories about the appalling conditions experienced by migrant workers are painful. Some women sleep in cupboards, or have no private space at all. Food is poor and insufficient. They often work extremely long hours and are the first to get up and the last to go to bed. An estimated 20 percent come back abused, raped, or without being paid, according to Migrant Care.

But for the women of Cimanggu, such horror stories do not deter women from leaving home.

“I was worried sick. If I was rich, I would not have let her go, but I could not even send her to school. She sacrificed herself for a better economic situation,” said Eneh, whose 18-year-old daughter went to Saudi Arabia. After two years of hard work there, her daughter returned with only $120.

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