The Jakarta Post, Indraswari , Kuala Lumpur | Sat, 11/28/2009 1:06 PM , Opinion
On Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009, The Jakarta Post published an article written by Silvester *Syl'Asa, titled "Migrant workers: Have we done our part?"
The article reminds me of the stories told by some migrant workers whom I encountered when I traveled back and forth between Malaysia and Indonesia, which I have done quite frequently in the last few months.
Their stories support Silvester's views on the importance of tackling our domestic problems such as poverty and unemployment with regard to the high flow of Indonesian workers going abroad - legally and illegally - in search of a better life.
At one time I chatted with a female migrant worker who was on leave to visit her family in West Java. We were about to board in the same plane from Malaysia to Indonesia. This woman was in her early thirties, married, and had two children aged 10 and five years old.
She had been working as a maid for some years in Malaysia. Prior to working in Malaysia she worked in Saudi Arabia, also as a maid. Her husband remains in Indonesia and works as a pedicab (becak) driver whose income is hardly enough to be relied on for living.
She left her two children when they were months old, leaving them under the care of their grandmother. Her prolonged absence leads to the children regard their grandmother as their mother and call their mother teteh, which means older sister in Sundanese.
She recalls economic reasons for working overseas and leaving her family behind. She wishes for her children to pursue proper education as she said "I wish my children would become clever persons *orang pandai* so they can have a better life *than their parents*".
On another occasion I met a woman in her mid-forties who happened to sit beside me on the plane on our way back to Malaysia.
She had just visited her family in Indonesia, the first time after working as a maid in Malaysia for three years.
She is a widower with five children. The eldest child is married while the other four children who are still studying range from primary to high school.
Her husband died one-and-half years ago and worked as a security guard (satpam) in West Java. Since then she has been the sole breadwinner of her family and leaves the care of her four children in the hands of the eldest married child.
She was thinking of shortening her appointment in Malaysia in order to be able to stay with her children but wondered, "How can I pay their school's fees if I stop working?"
There are other stories from other migrant workers I encountered at the airports and on the planes. Also in these places I often met those who needed help to deal with simple tasks such as how to fill in arrival/departure cards and customs declaration forms.
Others asked me to translate what was written on their boarding passes. In fact these matters may not be that simple for them, which is why they asked for help.
Traveling frequently between Malaysia and Indonesia gives me this unique experience, which is less likely happen when I travel to other places such as Europe.
There are millions of Indonesian migrant workers overseas and most of them are blue-collar. Many of them come from poor families, unskilled and with low education.
Nonetheless if we look at them through a different lens, despite their limitations, these workers are brave people who make a huge personal sacrifice and dare to take the risks to fight poverty.
Just like everyone else, they wish for a better life for themselves and their families.
I agree with Silvester who writes that many of migrant workers working overseas were lured by the dream of improving their lives and those of their loved ones.
Migrant workers that I encountered at the airports and in the planes are all legal workers with employers who treat them well. But there are workers who are unfortunate, being mistreated and even dead at the hands of abusive employers.
Yes, the protection of our migrant workers overseas needs to be improved. Nonetheless at home it is a high time for the government to tackle the roots of the problem, namely poverty and unemployment.
We can do our part too. If we are one of those employing maids at home, at the very least we must treat them fairly.
When possible we can do more such as helping them improving their skills, supporting their children's education or doing other things to help them fulfill their dreams of having a better life for themselves and their families.
The writer is an Indonesian visiting senior lecturer at the Gender Studies Program, School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The opinions expressed are her own.