01 Nov 2022 04:13:23

Migrating Out of Poverty: The Case of Indonesian Migrant Workers

In my hometown of Palemraya, a small village in South Sumatra, most people live in poor conditions. While some live in rental homes for years because they cannot afford to buy homes, some live by temporarily staying on someone else’s land or house and struggling every day to even meet their daily necessities. When we look at the five income groups in Indonesia*, as defined by the World Bank, four of the five groups represent the majority of the population in my village. The five groups are: the lower class, the lower-middle class, the aspiring middle class (AMC), the middle class, and the upper class. The lower class earns Rp. 354.000 ($23) per month, the lower-middle class earns Rp. 354.000-532.000, ($23–$35), AMC earns Rp. 532.000–1.200.000 ($35–$78), and the middle class earns above Rp. 6.000.000 ($400) per month [1]. Only one class does not exist here: the upper class.

Inaccessible basic needs and the poor living conditions experienced by the majority of people in my village evoke a desire to change their destiny—to “level up” their status on the economic ladder. The only way for them to fulfill that desire is by getting decent-paid jobs, as they do not have any other source other than their own physical capabilities. However, the number of job seekers exceeds the number of jobs available. And because of this on-going state of disparity, many people are left unemployed and destitute. On top of that, low wages — not commensurate with the hours worked — also stagnate the economic standard of the population.

Malaysia, a neighboring country directly adjacent to Indonesia that we often call Jiran, has a much better economy and offers more job opportunities with higher wages. That is why many Indonesians are willing to work there, despite having to travel very long distances and across the ocean. In their imagination, Jiran brings them new hope and confidence to free themselves from the shackles of poverty. The people in my village feel the same way.

Nevertheless, this so-called land of dreams for many Indonesians is not a utopia. This is especially true for migrant workers. Throughout the history of Indonesian migrant workers, there have been countless cases of sexual assault, physical violence, inhumane working hours, and other improper work situations that happened to TKW (female Indonesian migrant workers) and TKI (male Indonesian migrant workers). For example, the case of rape committed by an employer against four TKW in Sibu, Sarawak, in 2016; the torture of Adelina – a migrant worker from East Nusa Tenggara – by her employer in Penang in 2019 that ended in her death; thousands of TKI refinery workers who are required to work for more than 12 hours in several cities in Sarawak; among a myriad of other cases.

Bintulu, located in Sarawak, is one of Malaysia’s biggest cities. Ever since the Malaysian government found a significant quantity of natural gas, oil, and coal there, Binutu has become a highly developed and bustling city. Binutu also houses many factories and refineries, thus producing various products which are, in turn, used for national needs and exported to foreign countries [2]. These two factors bolster the city’s economy, giving rise to multiple markets, malls, and many other shopping centers.

Thousands of Indonesian citizens come to Bintulu to earn a living. While most TKW work as waiters at restaurants, housekeepers, market vendors, and so on, the majority of TKI in Bintulu work as factory workers, particularly in plywood factories. And at these factories, TKI are often subjected to discrimination, intimidation, excessive pressure, inhumane working hours, salary deductions, and inadequate basic facilities for food, shelter, and hygiene. Many TKW and TKI suffer emotional breakdowns under these conditions and start thinking of other possible options that could help their situations, like running away to return home, stealing, or becoming sex workers.

Heartbreaking stories of migrant workers such as these (the negative parts of Indonesian politics and economy) are not unfamiliar to Indonesians’ ears, but these stories and topics have not been adequately represented in the form of films or books, though they are a tale as old as time. These stories and topics must be given the attention they deserve because they are the evidence, as well as the journeys, of Indonesians from the colonial age up until now. From the time the Dutch East Indies government sent people from Java to Suriname, to Indonesian citizens who went to the holy land of Mecca for pilgrimage and subsequently stayed to find work there, and all the way up to the Indonesian government that took major initiatives to send human resources to multiple neighboring countries. Indonesians must see the reality of millions of Indonesian citizens who must search for a mere spoonful of rice in foreign lands because they are exhausted by the rain of judgments, being ostracized, and looked down upon in their own home-country.

The topics of poverty, unemployment, and low wages are important topics, and will not leave even the quietest whispers as long as poverty persists in this country. Although very broad and possibly cliché, they truly need to be discussed on a regular basis, including in the medium of cinema. Film connoisseurs, especially the Indonesian people themselves, must be encouraged to see, reflect, and think about the current conditions and problems that exist in the country.



This article originally appeared in Bahasa Indonesia on the writer’s website.


As a young man, Hadiwinata (Palembang, 1998) left his home in Indonesia to try to make a living overseas as a migrant worker, like 4.5 million other Indonesians. Responding to grinding poverty and lack of opportunities at home, he set off for Sarawak in Malaysia, where he worked at a plywood factory. He has since published a collection of 35 poems reflecting his experiences in Malaysia, with themes of dislocation, loss of identity, estrangement, and hopelessness. He writes both fiction and non-fiction. He has published poetry and short stories in eleven collections and has two dedicated publications. His most recent publication is a short story titled “Someone with My Name”, published by Portside Review in Australia.

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