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'We don't have fixed income': Returning migrant workers in Indonesia call for targeted aid

'We don't have fixed income': Returning migrant workers in Indonesia call for targeted aid

Former migrant worker Henik Andriani returned to her hometown Jember in June 2020 after working as a domestic helper in Singapore for three years. (Photo courtesy of Henik Andriani)

JAKARTA: It has been about seven months since Indonesian Arumi Marzudhy returned to her hometown Blitar in East Java province, after working in Singapore as a domestic helper for about four years. 

She had been planning to go back to Indonesia since October last year, but her employer asked her to extend her tenure.

But when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic last March, she decided to return to Indonesia a month earlier than initially planned.

“The pandemic broke out and the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appealed to Indonesians to return home immediately, so I decided to go back a month earlier than initially planned,” Mdm Marzudhy told CNA.

Upon returning, the 32-year-old decided to work on her family’s small business selling snacks which was previously run mainly by her mother.

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Although she is grateful to be back and to live with her husband and mother, she said she is struggling to earn a decent amount of money as their business has been affected by the pandemic.

“I am adapting from having lived in a super-fast-paced country to slow village life.

“I am also struggling to distribute our products,” Mdm Marzudhy, who is now in the final term of her pregnancy, said.

Many other domestic workers who have returned home amid the pandemic are facing the same predicament like Mdm Marzudhy.  

Data from the Ministry of Manpower showed that about 100,000 migrant workers have returned from abroad, while some 88,000 others could not seek employment overseas because of COVID-19. 

The migrant workers hope the government can pay more attention to them and channel specific aid to help them tide over the challenging times. 


To supplement her income, Mdm Marzudhy decided to offer private English lessons every Friday and Saturday.

Arumi Marzudhy, a former domestic helper in Singapore, with her students. (Photo courtesy of Arumi Marzudhy)

“I decided to teach private English lessons so I can survive living in the village amid the pandemic and without a steady income. 

“I’m giving private lessons to children in the village by visiting them one by one,” she said, adding that one of her students won a local English proficiency competition.

Besides helping out with the snack business, her husband freelances as a journalist for a Javanese-language media outlet. The couple also sell flowers and plants at their house. 

But despite their various efforts, their income is still significantly lower than what Mdm Marzudhy used to earn. 

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When working in Singapore, she used to earn S$1,000 (US$733) per month and could save about S$700 every month.

Now she earns 750,000 rupiah (US$51) per month as a private English teacher and about 1.2 million rupiah from their family business.  

“So far I am unable to save (money),” Mdm Marzudhy said.

Arumi Marzudhy, a former domestic helper in Singapore, is now running a family business selling snacks. (Photo courtesy of Arumi Marzudhy)

Because the family business has been registered as a small- and medium-size enterprise (SME), they received 2.4 million rupiah from authorities as part of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package.

But as a former migrant worker returning home unemployed, Mdm Marzudhy has yet to receive anything from the government.

Another former domestic helper, Henik Andriani, is having a similar experience. She had earlier worked in Singapore for three years before her contract expired in June.

In her hometown Jember, East Java, the 30-year-old now sells snacks for a living to help her husband pay the bills.

The high school graduate used to earn S$600 per month in Singapore, enough for her to save and buy a parcel of land and a cow upon her return.

But the sales from the couple’s small business is barely enough for them to save now.

“Now it’s a bit hard to save because we do not have a fixed amount of income,” said the mother of a nine-year-old.

“The profit is around 250,000 to 3000,000 rupiah per month,” Mdm Andriani told CNA, adding that her parents also live with them.

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Her husband makes concrete bricks for a living but since the pandemic he barely has work, she said.

Mdm Andriani said be it earning a living abroad or domestically, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

“If we look at it from a financial point of view, it is better to work abroad because every month there is always a fixed income of six million rupiah.

“But I have to be on standby for 24 hours. If my employee wants something, I have to be ready, while here we can work and rest as much as we like,” Mdm Andriani said.

She added that she would rather work in Indonesia if there are good jobs. 

“If the government provides employment with a minimum wage that is enough to cover daily needs, I will choose to stay home while looking after my family.”


Mr Donny Gahral Adian, a senior expert at the Office of the Presidential Staff said that the government is currently validating the number of migrant workers who have returned during the pandemic. The government will also look into what kind of help they need and who among them deserve to receive assistance.

“There is actually a lot of assistance from the government. First, of course, for those who have lost their jobs, there is social assistance. Then there is the pre-employment card, the incentive is around 3.4 million rupiah, partly in cash, partly in the form of online training.

“Then, if anyone wants to try and set up a business or SME, there is capital assistance from the government through the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises up to 2.4 million rupiah. So, if someone wants to set up a stall, a small home industry, there is some capital,” Mr Adian told CNA.

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But he acknowledged that at the moment there is no specific programme for returning migrant workers.

He also stressed that the government's social aid programmes prioritise those who do not have any income or assets over those who can still earn money. 

How many more Indonesians will fall below the poverty line, which was 441,000 rupiah per capita per month before COVID-19, or about S$1.35 a day?

Mdm Eva Trisiana, director of placement and protection of foreign workers at the Ministry of Manpower said they are trying to collect data of returned migrant workers and identify those who qualify to get assistance from the government, such as the pre-employment card programme.

"To register for the pre-employment card programme, rigid data is needed. So far, data collection has been a bit difficult. So we just collect whatever is possible. 

“We have submitted the data offline to the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs because the pre-employment card programme is under the ministry. Our aim is for them (the former migrant workers) to get priority to be chosen as recipients of the pre-employment card programme," Mdm Trisiana told CNA.


Mdm Anis Hidayah, who is heading the study centre and migration studies of Jakarta-based non-governmental organisation Migrant Care, said there is no specific government programme policy to assist former migrant workers.   

“Some can survive because they have a small business, and have no problems while working abroad and can have some savings, but that is only a small percentage.

"The majority went home with limited money because they had already transferred all their money home for their family’s daily needs. These are the ones who do not have enough assets, so how can they survive? In the meantime, there are no new jobs in Indonesia and people are losing jobs,” said Mdm Hidayah.   

She said it is not known yet how many former migrant workers did receive the government’s COVID-19 social aid scheme of 600,000 rupiah per month for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Mdm Hidayah said that there should be a programme for migrant workers who lost their jobs specifically during the COVID-19 crisis. 

She noted that the pre-employment card programme is also not suitable for the former migrant workers because the aim of the programme is to enhance skills by providing training while the current problem is access to jobs.

"So, those who have adequate tools can survive, otherwise they will become new poor people,” said Mdm Hidayah.

Indonesian former maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih leaves the court of justice in Hong Kong on Feb 10, 2015 after her employer was convicted of beating and starving the Indonesian maid in a "torture" case that sparked international outrage and spotlighted the plight of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia. (Photo: AFP/Philippe Lopez)

The Migrant Care activist said the government does not categorise returning migrant workers as poor people because they have been classified as someone who had a decent income.

Former migrant worker-turned-activist Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who used to work in Hong Kong in 2013 and was abused by her employee in a case which attracted international attention, concurred that not every migrant worker who returns to Indonesia can be successful.

Now working for a local NGO Kabar Bumi which consists of former migrant workers who do social work and advocate for migrant workers’ rights, Ms Sulistyaningsih said the key to being able to survive in Indonesia is to work collectively with other former migrant workers.

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She mentioned as an example, rather than setting up a small business which is similar to many others and thus competing with each other, they can work together to set up a bigger business and support each other.

Meanwhile, former migrant worker Mdm Marzudhy is still hopeful that better days lie ahead, especially with her first son due to be born in December.

“I hope the government pays attention to former migrant workers. We are not recipients of pension funds nor are we recipients of social assistance.

“We don't mind the struggle but we wish the government supports us too, such as by providing entrepreneurial classes for former migrant workers and also helps to distribute our products.”

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Source: CNA/ks


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