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The Rights and Needs of Women Migrant Workers

by Mona Saroinsong

Senior friend of GMKI (SCM Indonesia), and very much involved in the work on Women Migrant Workers. This article focuses on the Indonesian Women Migrant Workers. This article was written in St. Gallen, Switzerland, 14 February 2005, in celebrating women’s love to the world.


I am is I am…. Alive but not alive.
Flowers bloom around me, I could see, but can’t smell them.

I am is I am, Exist but not exist.
Sun shines, I could feel but can’t enjoy it.

I am is I am…, Breathing but not inhale.
Wind blows, It touches me but not comforting.

I am is I am,
Alive but not for me
Alive but not recognised
Living to be controlled and determined.
Living to carry the burden.
Living to work for family to live
Living for mother, father and for my siblings to survive
Being scolded and blamed are my daily routine
Humiliation and being beaten by my employer are my daily meal
Being marginalised by my own people is my normal life

I am is I am, alive but not live because I am a WOMAN


I’d like to start this article by quoting this:

In the recent decades, the world’s women have made huge strides towards achieving equality with men, and each year, International Women’s Day helped to highlight their accomplishments and focus on existing problems and continuing equalities, but sadly, as we look at the world situation of today, women still represent a striking majority among those who are most exposed to inequality and injustice. They constitute 70 per cent of the world’s poor, they are a vast majority of the world’s illiterate adults and they suffer the most from different forms of violence. Their plight is particularly tragic in societies torn apart by conflict and crisis, where women and girls are usually among the first to become victims of strife. Today, however, it should be matched with an equally strong action in all areas of critical concern to women’s advancement, including such vital issues as poverty, education, health, violence against women, and women’s participation in economic and political life. – (UN Press Release, GA/SM/34, WOM/1042, 19980306)

That Press release was already issued in 1998, but up to now it is still disturbing me so much seeing the reality and reading reports on women’s development all over the world, because whatever it comes out, despite of the recognition of the specific rights of women, in particular on women migrant workers in various International Treaties and Convention, most women all over the world still experienced as what expressed in the above poem. It is so because the governments in Asia-Pacific countries continue to neglect in adopting national legal measures that give full protection to rights of women in more specific women migrants and which address ongoing situations of exploitation, violence and abuse. 

I think it is important to listen and to pay attention carefully to what Mahbub ul Haq said in his UN 1995 Report: “Economic growth is necessary for human development,” he says. “But the purpose of development is to help people live longer, more productive and more fulfilling lives. This simple but powerful truth is too often forgotten in the pursuit of material and financial wealth. Economic growth that does not put people at its centre is development without a soul. Do people participate in economic growth as well as benefit from it? Are human choices enlarged or narrowed by new technologies? Is economic expansion leading to job-led or job-less growth? Are budgets being balanced without unbalancing the lives of people?”

Further on he said: “There is an unwitting conspiracy on a global scale to undervalue women’s work and contributions to society. In virtually every country of the world, women work longer hours than men, yet share less in the economic rewards. If women’s work were accurately reflected in national statistics, it would shatter the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world”.

Women Situation and Condition in Indonesia 

In the eyes of Indonesian law, women have the same rights to men, but in practice it shows that women are still seen, considered and treated as a compliment to men, although once Indonesia was lead by the very first woman president, Megawati Soekarno Putri.

Everywhere in Indonesia, women being abused and exploited in all aspects of life, so I think it is important to make link between violence against women and their social and economic rights, because Indonesian women faced additional restrictions derived from systematic discrimination, and implicit, non-written rules imposed by society and by family members. 

Women Migrant Workers in Indonesia

One of the many obvious examples of violence against women is the existence of Indonesian women migrant workers. For the nation’s economy contribution, Indonesian women migrant workers are not counted. Their contribution to economic and social life is invisible and hence ignored, because their work is not reflected in national statistic. They are invisible, but their contribution into the society is needed badly. 

According to one of Human Development reports, ‘women work longer hours than men in nearly every country. Of the total burden of paid and unpaid work, women bear an average of 53% in developing countries and 51% in industrial countries’. This condition absolutely applies and suits to Indonesia. 

The male dominant culture all over Indonesia helps to make Indonesian law on women migrant workers do not address the very sensitive and the importance of women’s concerns, but in fact it even just views women migrant workers’ rights through men’s eyes. Specific women’s issues were lost in the process. Women migrant worker’s rights is placed on the agenda implicitly only, and that makes Indonesia as the resource of women migrant workers, not pro active in the debate to overcome violence against its women migrant workers all over the world, in particular the ones in Arabic countries, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. 

In one report it says that throughout 2001 there were many violence against Indonesian migrant workers rights cases to 2,239,566 Indonesian migrant workers (Tempo Interaktif, 2004), and most victims are women migrant workers. 

Discrimination to Indonesian women migrant workers take place everywhere: in their own nation, Indonesia, they are treated as second class citizens, in other countries, they are treated as slaves and receive low wages compare to men migrant workers. All of these happened for many reasons:

  1. Indonesia has no specific law or policy to protect its migrant workers
  2. Women migrant workers are not well equipped enough with the skill needed for their work
  3. They are poor of knowledge on their rights
  4. Most of Indonesian migrant workers are coming from villages, and that working abroad is one of the last choice because of the lack of work placements and low wages in Indonesia, and that make them fragile to violence, sexual abuses, even rapes and murders
  5. Lastly but not less important is, the Indonesian government is so ignorant on the issue of migrant workers especially for the women. They are not seen as one of the contributors towards Indonesian economic growth.

(Compare these to Indonesian neighboring country: the Philippines) 

So what to do to lessen the problem?

I think the most important thing for Indonesian government to do are: 

  1. To recognise the existence of its migrant workers, specifically the women ones,
  2. Then definitely it has to be followed with written law/policy to protect the migrant workers’ rights and seriously control the roles of the agencies which send workers abroad
  3. To admit explicitly that the migrant workers contribute something towards Indonesian economic growth,
  4. It should not stop there only, but the government has to take pro active action when there are cases on violence against its migrant workers,
  5. While at the same time, a serious evaluation has to be taken on policy of the working destination countries.

On the other side, the migrant workers themselves have to be more aware and pro active in preparing themselves with skills needed for their work and they have to fight for their rights progressively. 

All of these have to be taken into consideration seriously by all parties because as the 1995 Human Development Report said: “This undervaluation of women’s work not only undermines women’s purchasing power, but it also reduces women’s already low social status in many countries” 

Indonesian government is entitled to equip its migrant workers especially the women because they are most fragile in all aspects compare to men, before letting them go to work abroad, for “Investing in women’s capabilities and empowering them to exercise their choices is not only valuable in itself, it is also the surest way to contribute to economic growth and overall development,” (James Gustave Speth, UNDP Administrator) 

Hope for the Future

I strongly believe that a combination of economic and social factors, as well as the implicit image of girls and boys, which had led most parents in Indonesia to the paradigm of giving the priority of education to their sons, has to be changed, and that government has to play a serious leading role to eliminate this non constructive stigmatisation. 

I’d like to close this article by again quoting the 1998 UN report:

“All legal and regulatory frameworks have to be changed in order to promote real equality in the relation of [humankind]. Women must set themselves free by changing their awareness and self-image, by knowing their rights and claiming those rights. Men needed to perceive the benefit of gender equality as well, leading to the creation of a society that was less violent. Women’s human rights could not flourish without the creation of an enabling environment”. (UN Report, 5 March 1998 Press Release OBV/37, WOM/1039)