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Improving Conditions of Women's Overseas Labour Migration.

Improving Condition of Women Workers

Since the 1998 East Asian economic crisis, overseas migration by poor Indonesian women has risen exponentially, with an estimated 1.5 million women working both legally and illegally in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia each year.

In many countries, including Indonesia, the international movement of labour has been key to the survival of the rural economy due to the remittances sent home and also because labour migration can act as a buffer when weather or economic crises push the rural poor beneath the level of production that they need to survive. [1]  

Many of these women come from the poorest regions of Indonesia. Poverty, unemployment and a lack of formal education are the driving forces behind increasing numbers of Indonesian women who seek to migrate abroad plus the chance to earn relatively high wages which would otherwise be unavailable for the rural poor.

However, Indonesia’s systems for labour migration and the protection of worker’s rights are widely acknowledged to function poorly. High levels of abuse directed at overseas workers make regular media headlines. Added to this is the fact that the system itself is permeated by bad practices ranging from a lack of affordable credit and, worse, savings accounts; the near-absence of legal contracts; a lack of financial literacy; poor training; poor in-country support and so on. The government has made some effort to improve the workings of the labour migration corridor, but the vested corporate interests who profit from current poor practices have thus far prevented any significant changes to this abusive system.

AusAID and the World Bank have been supporting joint analytical work on Indonesia’s migrant workers since 2006. It has focused largely on the structure of the labour market and on economic issues such as the scale and evolution of remittances and on access to finance for prospective migrant workers. AusAID has also supported Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women’s documentation program of rights issues amongst women migrant workers and some limited policy advocacy with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Body for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI). To date, virtually no work has been done on the sociological, economic, and psychological impacts of overseas migration on the families that are left behind.

The pressing need to reform the migrant worker system is now a frequent topic of debate in the national media and within government circles. Indonesia’s parliament passed the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families in April, 2012. Indonesia has also become a regional leader in pressing for better protection for migrant workers, particularly for women. In 2011, the President of Indonesia for the first time forced a moratorium on the export of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, specifically citing the lack of protection against abuse by employers.

Design consultations, ongoing programs, and research have identified a number of possible entry points for the program. At the national level, the top priorities are:

(i) policy advocacy to improve migrant worker protections;

(ii) improvements to how the labour companies are regulated; and

(iii) increasing take-up of social insurance.

At the local level, programs that will translate into better welfare outcomes for migrant workers include access to non-usurious financing (financial inclusion); promoting better public oversight of recruiting firms; and more effective systems of redress when contracts are not respected. This work will also finance diagnostics and analytical programs that include better census information, poverty impact assessments, and comparisons of poverty reduction from national versus international migration.

This program will continue and strengthen the work already started by AusAID and the World Bank, and it will complement work now being started by The National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction (TNP2K), the Women and Leadership program’s host agency. This program is likely to obtain strong support for senior levels of government, particularly the President’s office, the special commission on the rights of migrant workers, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Several other relevant government ministries and parts of parliament also have working level partnerships with CSOs (i.e. health, women’s empowerment, labor); these will be strengthened to become more effective drivers of reform actions through this program.

The expected outcomes from work in this area will include effective compliance monitoring measured against the UN Convention; new or strengthened programs for financial inclusion; support programs and legal assistance for female migrant workers; an increased number of women accessing and using social insurance; and ongoing national survey data on female migrant workers.

[1] 2008 estimates are that overseas migrant workers (men and women) remitted US$6.0 billion. See “Enhancing Access to Finance for Indonesian Overseas Migrant Workers,” (World Bank, 2010) part of a large AusAID-World Bank sector study on Indonesian overseas migration.

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