Down and Out in Malaysia

By Moch. Faried Cahyono

KUALA LUMPUR –  Their languages are similar, as are their cultures and many of their customs. Both Indonesia and Malaysia are also predominantly Muslim and up until a few years ago, both had autocratic regimes as well. Now Indonesia is a fledgling democracy at last. But that has made little difference to hundreds of thousands of its people, who are still leaving their impoverished country in droves to work in prosperous Malaysia.

For sure many of them do so with the hope that the remaining similarities between Indonesia and Malaysia would mean they would find hospitable work conditions in their host country. After all, Dato Abdul Raman Palil of the Komite Dewan Kota Negara Bagian Selangor says that such similarities are the main reasons why Malaysians choose Indonesians over other nationalities to do jobs shunned by the locals. But far too many Indonesians who have toiled or are toiling in Malaysia say that their pay is not the only thing that is dismal;  so, too, is the way they are treated by their employers. This is true not only among the estimated 2.5 million Indonesians working in Malaysia illegally, but also even among those who are here with proper documentation.

There are, of course, Indonesians who say they are satisfied with their work conditions in this country. Many of these are executives and white-collar employees working in private corporations or big state firms such as Petronas, the government-owned oil firm. Official statistics show, however, that most of the Indonesians working in Malaysia are employed in sectors that involve hard labor and a dirty and tough environment. Of the 590,698 Indonesians who are working here legally, about 29 percent are in plantations, some 19 percent in manufacturing, 18 percent in construction, and seven percent in services. About 27 percent, meanwhile, are employed as domestic helpers.

Rubber tapper Mohammad Thahir says that they do not have any accident insurance, despite the risks involved in plantation work. Any medical expenses they incur also have to come out of their own pockets. According to Thahir, a fellow Indonesian tapper who was accidentally blinded by sap had to go home to Indonesia still unable to see. Says the 36-year-old from Sumbawa: “Despite a salary of RM500 (about $138) a month for a senior tapper, we cannot afford to pay if there is an accident.”

Indeed, while RM500 may seem a princely sum to Indonesians who earn far less back home, many find out all too soon that it is barely enough to cover day-to-day expenses in this country, which has higher standards of living than most other Southeast Asian nations.

A loss of freedom
Indonesian workers also say they are often confined to their work dormitories even during their free time because their employers take their passports and the identification cards issued them by Malaysian immigration officials are not honored by the police.
Thahir found this out the hard way when he and a friend ventured out for a look around the neighborhood and were immediately accosted by the police who demanded to see their passports, telling them the ID cards they presented were not enough to prove they were here legitimately.

Malaysian employers hold on to the passports of their foreign employees until their job contracts are over to prevent them from running away. Supeno Sahid of the Indonesian embassy here in Kuala Lumpur says, “The negotiation between Indonesia and Malaysia about this problem has run for a year and we haven’t found a compromise.”

Not surprisingly, Indonesian workers who do not have papers have even more miserable stories to tell. Popular among Malaysian employers because they are willing to do dirty work for half the fee demanded by their legal counterparts, illegal workers have to contend with being the subject of regular police roundups. It is a life fraught with uncertainty, with many running into the jungle during raids. And once they are caught, they know they will have to spend time in an overcrowded jail before they are forcibly shipped home to Indonesia.

One Indonesian illegal worker who was already a supervisor when he was caught in a police raid says he had to spend a month in Semenya jail in Selangor. The 600 –square-meter room he was shoved into had about 3,600 other occupants, all of them foreigners. Food and water were scarce. According to the Indonesian supervisor, he was set free only after he gave his captors RM100 ($26). He was, however, not allowed to resume his work in Malaysia, but was sent home to Indonesia.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mulustan, meanwhile, was lucky enough to have been able to elude the police when he was still without the proper papers. But life was no less difficult or less complicated for him during the seven months he spent unemployed in Malaysia. Mulustan says he had paid a recruiter IDR2 million (about $222), expecting to find work waiting for him once he got here. That didn’t happen, driving Mulustan to the brink of desperation as he tried to survive on almost nothing. And when he did finally land a job, it paid a monthly salary of only RM350 ($92), which he had to stretch just to pay for his room and board.

Lack of support
Some observers say part of the problem is that many Indonesian workers come here knowing hardly anything about Malaysia save for its similarities with their country. They do not realize, the observers add, that among the many factors that helped Malaysia become an economic powerhouse has been a policy that emphasizes cheap labor as a come-on for foreign investors.

Members of the political opposition also say that foreign workers may have a hard time finding sympathy among most Malaysians – at least in public. Indeed, Tian Chua of the opposition Keadilan party says that critics of the government and its policies often find themselves in jail.

Legislator Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who is now behind bars, also comments, “Sadly, the economic development has put Malaysians into a stupor….(They) don’t think seriously of the welfare of those in the lower level of society.”

But there are some Malaysian legal aid institutions that are more than willing to help out foreign workers. One of them is the NGO Tenaganita, which is headed by well-known human rights crusader Adele Fernandes. According to Fernandes, there has been a steady increase in Indonesians who have sought the help of Tenaganita. She says that unlike the governments of other countries such as India and Bangladesh, that of Indonesia seems hard-pressed in looking after the welfare of its citizens who are working overseas.

Many Indonesians say that their embassy here certainly seems unable to cope with sheer volume of cases involving Indonesian workers. An embassy official admits this, adding that they are already often overwhelmed just by routine activities. The official also says embassy personnel are ill equipped to deal with the problems of the workers, asserting that the root of it all is Jakarta. As the embassy official sees it, there should by a central agency looking after the welfare of workers sent abroad – similar to what the Philippines has.

The official says there are at least 11 departments supposed to be coordinating with each other regarding Indonesians working abroad, but the set-up is apparently not functioning well. In fact, says the official, the departments do not even seem to be interested in making it work at all. “In every meeting about (Indonesian overseas workers) in Jakarta, many ministers are absent,” says the official. “How can we (accomplish anything)?”

A case of greener grass
Some experts say, though, that the real root of the problem is Indonesia’s economic downturn, as well as its government’s policies. Economist Revrisond Baswir of Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University says that since the Soeharto administration, job creation has never been a top priority among Indonesian officials. This remains true to this day, he says, adding, “The Indonesian government thinks only about the investors’ interest. There is no political will (regarding job creation).”

Pointing out that unemployment has even gotten worse, Revrisond argues that the Indonesian government seems to be passing on some of its responsibilities to other countries. “It is ironic that Indonesia should think that the employment created by Malaysia is one of the solutions to this national problem,” he says.

Yet there are experts who say that it is not that simple. Academic Graeme Hugo of the University of Adelaide in Australia, for example, notes that the movement of peoples between Malaysia and Indonesia has a “history that goes back to pre-colonial times.”
Joseph Liow of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore for his part says that while economic growth in Indonesia would probably reduce the number of Indonesians seeking employment overseas, there would still be Indonesians dreaming of working – even illegally — in Malaysia.

“(Illegal) Indonesian workers had already been streaming to Malaysia in the early 1990s, when the Indonesian economy was healthy and strong,” argues Liow in a 2002 paper. “Even if there were to be a recovery in the Indonesian economy…employment opportunities and wages will still be substantially lower compared to the far more economically advanced Malaysia.” Malaysia, therefore, will still simply look better to Indonesians.

This is despite the fact that even now, salary packages offered to Indonesian workers in this country are getting even less generous, since Malaysia no longer needs them as much as before; thousands of jobs may even disappear altogether. Sadono Sukirno, a senior economics expert from Malaya University, says that Malaysia’s electronics industry, one of the regular employers of Indonesian labor, has not been doing as well as before. Many major construction projects, such as highways and railways that had employed Indonesian workers have also been completed.

With Indonesians continuing to set their sights on Malaysia, Jakarta perhaps should at least start buckling down to correct the factors that Hugo says have help lead to the abuse and exploitation of many Indonesian overseas workers: “the lack of simplicity and high formal and informal costs of movement, inadequate preparation, and a lack of support in destination countries.”

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