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'I desire to try my luck': Indonesian domestic workers see hope for jobs in new MOU with Malaysia

'I desire to try my luck': Indonesian domestic workers see hope for jobs in new MOU with Malaysia

FILE PHOTO: Migrant workers who arrived back from Malaysia and Singapore wait for COVID-19 screening in Surabaya on Apr 28, 2021, before being quarantined. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto / AFP)

  • On Apr 1, Indonesia and Malaysia concluded a new agreement on the recruitment and protection of domestic workers, raising hopes that Indonesian migrant workers would once again be able to work in the neighbouring country
  • The movement of these workers had stopped as the pandemic shut borders and Putrajaya imposed a temporary freeze on hiring foreign migrant workers. At the same time, Jakarta also imposed a freeze pending the conclusion of the labour agreement
  • In the first of two stories, CNA looks at what this means for Indonesian domestic workers who are seeking better-paying jobs and rights in Malaysia

JAKARTA: Indonesian Syamsinar, 38, has been busy with online searches over the past few days about working in Malaysia as a domestic worker. 

She joined an informal Facebook community for Indonesians who are interested in working in Malaysia. In the group of more than 10,000 members, they share information such as potential job opportunities, advice for those who are seeking to work as migrant workers and visa matters.

The housewife from Riau is among those who are seeking information to work in Malaysia as a domestic worker, after both governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on recruitment and protection of Indonesian domestic workers.

She worked in Selangor from 2004 until 2007 as a domestic helper and remembered earning about RM350 (US$82.90) per month at that time.

Syamsinar, who goes by one name, told CNA that she hopes to secure a placement in Malaysia soon as her husband is struggling to earn a fixed income.

“In my opinion, this (new MOU) is very good because it can protect our workers over there,” she said.

“I did not get a day off back then. I had to work all the time, even when I was sick. With this new agreement, our migrant workers are taken care of.”

The MOU was signed on Apr 1, after the previous one expired in 2016. The Indonesian government said that it aims to protect Indonesian domestic workers beginning from their departure until their contract ends and they return home.

After the agreement lapsed in 2016, there were varying amounts of recruitment fees, depending on the agents involved. The recruiters and employers were dealing with each other directly, rather than through a centralised system.

Border closures due to COVID-19 made it difficult for migrant workers to move from Indonesia to Malaysia.

Prior to the pandemic, Malaysia was the top destination country for Indonesian migrant workers. More than 79,000 Indonesians went to Malaysia in 2019, out of about 277,000 migrant workers, according to data from the government agency for the protection of migrant workers (BP2MI). 

Last year, the Indonesian government decided to halt the placement of its migrant workers in Malaysia, until a new MOU is in force. Over the past two years, Putrajaya had also imposed a temporary freeze on the hiring of foreign migrant workers. 

Among the protections contained within the new agreement include one day off per week and a minimum of 10 hours of rest per day. Out of these 10 hours, seven will need to be for uninterrupted rest. 

The employer must also pay wages on a monthly basis, no later than on the seventh day of each month. The money will need to be transferred directly to the worker’s bank account. The MOU also stipulates a minimum monthly wage of RM1,500.

The entire placement process will now take place via a single portal.

Minister of Manpower Ida Fauziyah who signed the agreement on behalf of the Indonesian government, wrote on Twitter that it will be the benchmark for other MOUs with other labour destination countries.

Apart from protecting migrant workers, it is hoped the MOU would pave the way for both countries to grow their economies as well as prevent the illegal migration of people who endured dangerous journeys to get to Malaysia, sometimes resulting in deadly boat accidents

Despite the joy of a new agreement, prospective migrant workers from Indonesia and rights groups have called for more transparency of what the MOU entails as well as close monitoring of its implementation.


Indonesians who are interested in working as domestic workers in Malaysia told CNA that they are hopeful that the new agreement would allow them to once again work in Malaysia, with added protections.

Milawati, 40, who used to work as a caregiver in Melaka for two years, told CNA that she was excited about the new agreement and hopes that it would allow her to work in Malaysia legally.

She said: “I am interested in going. There are a lot of agents who have approached us … But I can’t go without my husband so we need jobs for both of us.” she said.

When her two-year contract ended eight months ago, she and her husband, who worked as shopkeeper in Selangor, decided to return to their hometown in Batu Bara regency, North Sumatra.

Since then, the duo, who have four children, have been jobless as the pandemic continued to put a toll on the economy. They have been getting by with their savings and help from their parents. 

Realising that there are more job opportunities in Malaysia, they resorted to illegal means to go there. However, they were tricked by so-called agents twice.

In February, the pair forked out 7 million rupiah (US$487) to work in Malaysia illegally. However, after swimming through muddy water in the darkness of the night to get to the boat which would bring them to the neighbouring country, the authorities prevented them and 32 other migrant workers from leaving North Sumatra.

Previously, they paid 10 million rupiah to an agent in Dumai, Riau and were asked to wait in a shelter there. But after some time, there were no signs of them being able to go to Malaysia and they had no choice but to return to Batu Bara. 

Milawati, who goes by one name, added: “I’ll probably try (to apply for work in Malaysia) after Idul Fitri.”

“Most importantly, (I hope) the employer is nice. I get time to pray and rest.” 

Working in Malaysia is not only appealing to those who have experienced it before, but it is also being considered by others like Rita Fatmawati who have never worked abroad.

The 43-year-old was born and raised in Jakarta and spent her adulthood working at a call centre in the megacity earning around 4 million rupiah per month.

When her parents living in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara were taken ill, she left her job in Jakarta to take care of them. She now sells clothes online and earns less than a million rupiah per month. 

“I have a desire to go there (to Malaysia) to try my luck, but I don’t know whether it will materialise.”

“I think this MOU is good, but what are the guarantees that everything will work well?” she wondered, adding that she also has doubts over how quickly the authorities would respond in instances of domestic workers filing complaints against their employers.

Authorities in North Sumatra intercepted 34 migrants who tried to leave Indonesia illegally for Malaysia on Feb 7, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Indonesian Navy)


Despite optimism among those who are hoping to work in Malaysia, the civil society has called for more details to be made available to the public.

The executive director of Jakarta-based NGO Migrant Care said that more transparency is needed.

“From Migrant Care’s point of view, we would like to push the government to make the MOU available to the public so we all know what it entails,” Wahyu Susilo said.

The government has said that there would be a new system called One Channel System, which is a single portal to manage recruitment and placement.

It would also enable the government to monitor the migrant workers and the latter can file complaints through the system. However, the system is not operational yet. 

“This scheme has never been explained fully and detailed. So we don’t know whether this One Channel System actually paves the way for a monopoly or only certain parties can benefit from it,” Susilo said, noting that certain agents may attempt to monopolise the recruitment process, resulting in potential misuse of power and corruption.

Karsiwen, the head of NGO Kabar Bumi which campaigns for migrant worker rights, has similar views.

“An MOU is not legally binding so it has no legal force. So if an employer does not adhere to the MOU, the employer or Malaysia won’t face problems,” claimed Karsiwen, who goes by one name.

The government has dismissed these concerns. 

Responding to CNA’s queries, the secretary general of the manpower ministry Anwar Sanusi said that the officials will monitor the situation. “We won’t let a monopoly be in place,” he stated.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia Hermono, who goes by one name, told CNA: “MOUs indeed do not entail sanctions when there are violations because that is the scope of the law enforcers in the respective countries.”

“It is not correct to say it is not legally binding because the law enforcer should not be Indonesia. But it is the obligation of the Malaysian authorities to enforce the law,” he added. 

The ambassador also said that Indonesia has a monitoring group in place to oversee complaints and the embassy will promote a better understanding of the MOU. He expects the One Channel System to be ready in around a month’s time.

“This MOU is the best MOU I have ever had with other countries. I believe this is a new benchmark. But now we have to make sure it will be implemented correctly,” Hermono said.

For Indonesians who are looking for jobs in Malaysia like Milawati, the bottom line is to be able to secure a better-paying job.

“I just want to own a house because I don’t have one.”

Source: CNA/ks(aw)


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