Do Indonesian women want to be ‘rescued’ from ‘trafficking’?

by Khoo Choon Yen and Kellynn Wee

Trafficking cases in Indonesia are ‘skyrocketing’, but are increasing numbers of women really put into peril, or are moralist politics at play?

“Woman Harvesting Flowers, Bangli Indonesia”, taken by Adam Cohn and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Two recent articles in The Jakarta Post report on human trafficking activities in Indonesia to the Middle East and Malaysia.

The first one chronicles a bizarre case of alleged human trafficking from Indonesia to Middle East: ten Indonesian workers bound for the Middle East were detained at a raid on a recruitment center. The decision to classify this as ‘human trafficking’ is due to a confluence of factors: Indonesia’ moratorium on women’s migration to Middle East (surprisingly not mentioned in the article), the employment agency’s unlicensed operations, and a bunch of migration-related documents that does not tally with the number of workers ‘rescued’.

While the moratorium makes women’s migration to the Middle East illegal, some women do actively undertake the decision to migrate through irregular means. While it is not clear how much information Indonesian women have about the costs and risks of choosing this particular migration route, it seems fair to say that some are well aware that the route is an illegal one and may have forged ahead nonetheless. Were these women happy to be ‘rescued’ in this way?

Stories from our research in Singapore indicate that many domestic workers here do choose to migrate irregularly. They devise strategies to dodge border control officials or migrate through cheaper, unlicensed brokers, taking a calculated risk to reduce the costs involved in onerous ‘legal’ migration routes. The trafficking paradigm increasingly popular with the Indonesian state may mean that women are ‘rescued’ against their will.

This second article was published two months back, and reported on the police busting a syndicate that worked in Java, West Nusa Tenggara and Sumatra. This syndicate smuggled people to Malaysia using a ship based in waters off Tanjung Balai (i.e. seemingly using the sea route across Java Sea). We get the impression that much of the irregular migration from Indonesia to Malaysia is by sea route due to lax border controls.

We had many questions unanswered after reading this article; its omissions and silences are particularly glaring:

– Are all the ‘trafficked victims’ women? It’s not clear from the article, but the photo provided by the police shows women only.

– Unlike the women in the first article, the ‘victims’ were apparently asked to ‘pay from Rp 1 million… to 3 million in order to work in Malaysia’. Was this due to the nature of jobs/salaries promised, or different practices depending on origin of workers and destinations?

– The point about being tricked into working at nightclubs suggest that trafficking in this case was linked to sex work (in the first article it’s less clear but other news articles that talk about the Middle East moratorium typically link to domestic work).

– Like the first article, were people happy to be ‘rescued’?

Both articles also hint at very different flows of money embedded in different migration routes.

Unlike the ‘victims’ in the second article, the first article indicates that the workers did not have to pay upfront to migrate: rather, the workers received Rp.6 million from a sponsor. In our 2013 study [link to PDF], 93 out of 201 of the migrant domestic workers we surveyed received some money from the agent before leaving for work in Singapore.

Is this sum of money the “shopping money” that anthropologist Johan Lindquist writes about? In his 2012 article on would-be female migrants from Indonesia, he writes:

“As indicated, there is a clear gendered dimension in the recruitment process, largely because of the high fees offered for female migrants and the fact that domestic servants generally pay off their debt through monthly salary deductions upon arrival in the destination country—the exception being Saudi Arabia—while men must pay prior to departure. For this reason, PL [petugas lapangan, a bureaucratic term that translates as ‘field agent’ or ‘assistant’, often used to refer to labour brokers] often offer prospective domestic servants and their husband or parents “shopping money.” Generally these gifts are extended in a step-by-step fashion, so as to minimize risk—since there may be other PL with similar offerings—but also to slowly establish a relationship. A gift of money may be followed, for instance, by a trip to the clinic for the medical certificate, thus setting the process in motion before the next sum of money is offered.”

Our study had a small sample from East Java (N=56), and the proportion of those who did not get any money (66 per cent) was higher than those from West Java (N=19, 42%) and Central Java (N=120, 48%). It could be a result of agents across Java employing different recruitment tactics.

Dislodging an examination of the flows of money involved in labour migration from the frame of ‘human trafficking’ helps us to better understand what compels people to move. We note that a research gap in work on recruitment in Southeast Asia begs the question of how agents in Myanmar incentivise women to migrate overseas for work.

It can be revealing to examine these articles for the stories that they tell, and the negative space that they carve out in their silences.

3 thoughts on “Do Indonesian women want to be ‘rescued’ from ‘trafficking’?

  1. The Indonesia domestic helper did not receive money or little money from recruiter does not mean their families did not receive the money. In many cases the recruiter or commonly called with the job title of sponsor is closed family member, maybe their brother, sister, father even husband. It maybe ex abroad helpers themselves becoming sponsor after their return. In remote villages where economic activities are scare, anyone with some contact with a proper recruitment agency instantly become part of an important recruirtment agent and because they cannot be sure how many can they recruit from their small village. They charge a premium as they run the risk to being brand as a trafficker.

    1. This is a good point and helps answer some questions–thanks, Mr. Tay! The idea that brokers also charge a premium because of risk is a useful one. We met a researcher from Indonesia at a conference who talked about how people in Java become ‘part time’ sponsors in times of agricultural uncertainty–the more uncertain harvests were or the more the price of land rose, the more brokerage activity there was.


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