Jakarta – No less than 2.7 million undereducated and unskilled Indonesians, most of them also undocumented, have risked their lives for the sake of getting the jobs in Malaysia they badly need to feed themselves and their families at home. Dozens have drowned or gone missing at sea on their way to the neighboring country, while many others reached land only to fall into the trap of modern slavery.
They simply could not find jobs to support their livelihoods at home, so they were easily lured by promises of good money overseas that would lift them out of poverty.
Malaysia is the preferred destination among migrant workers for many reasons, including its proximity, similar language and the wide range of blue-collar jobs on offer, such as for domestic, construction and palm oil plantation workers. Other destinations like the Middle East, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore mainly offer employment as domestic workers.
It is therefore unbelievable that Indonesia and Malaysia, close neighbors and prominent members of ASEAN, have been either unable or unwilling to renew the agreement on the protection of Indonesian migrant workers, especially domestic helpers in Malaysia, after more than five years of negotiation. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two countries on this matter expired in 2016.
Both sides seem to be prioritizing domestic interests. Indonesia wants to ensure protection for its citizens, the domestic workers, while Malaysia is obliged to protect its own, their employers. Sadly, both sides seem reluctant to find a win-win solution that would provide legal certainty for both Indonesian workers and their Malaysian employers.
The absence of such a legal umbrella will benefit employers at the expense of hundreds of thousands of unskilled and uneducated Indonesian migrant workers, most of them women.
The government has a responsibility to protect its citizens who work abroad as mandated by Law No. 18/2017 on protection for migrant workers, among other regulations. The 2017 law explicitly defines the rights and obligations of Indonesian migrant workers in an amendment to the old legislation enacted in 2004.
It is impossible for the government to enforce the law in other countries; in this case, Malaysia. In the end, the market mechanism applies and what the government can do is to minimize the risks, because Indonesian migrant workers have little to no bargaining power vis-a-vis their Malaysian employers.
Indonesia and Malaysia are scheduled this week to sign a new MoU in Bali on migrant worker protection.
Malaysia's Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan and Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin held separate meetings with Indonesia's Manpower Minister Ida Fauziyah in January to finalize the deal, and most of the differences have been reportedly cleared. But no progress has been heard since then.
The Jakarta Post reported on Monday that Indonesia had demanded the abolition of the Maid Online system, a direct hiring platform that allows migrant workers to enter Malaysia without fulfilling all legal requirements and procedures. Jakarta also asked for visa conversion facilities that would allow Indonesian migrants to convert their tourist visas into a work visa, to protect Indonesian migrants from human trafficking and modern slavery, which remain rampant.
At least four boats carrying undocumented Indonesian migrant workers have capsized off the coast of Malaysia's Johor Bahru in the last two months, killing 30 people. The tragedy will reoccur if Indonesia is only able to provide the overseas market with unskilled and undereducated workers.
It is hoped that a mutually beneficial agreement will be reached to stop modern slavery.