Indonesia’s Struggle Against Exploitation: The True Story of Indonesian Workers in Malaysia



Today, Indonesia and Malaysia are neighbors who cooperate in many areas. Both countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum. Their relationship is generally described as good, friendly, and fruitful—and this is correct. But not every aspect of their bilateral relations is positive. Some dark sides receive less attention but are no less real: exploitation of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, particularly in the plantation sector. The two nations have different views on the root causes of this issue. While Jakarta sees it mainly as an outcome of unscrupulous intermediaries and agents, Kuala Lumpur identifies systemic problems within upstream industries such as palm oil mills.


The exploitation of Indonesian Workers in Malaysia: Working Conditions

Very often, Indonesian workers assigned to the plantations in Malaysia are denied fundamental rights. They are not treated equally with Malaysian workers, violating the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination. There are numerous reports of exploitation of Indonesian workers in Malaysia. Recruiters often charge illegal fees, which workers must repay by working in plantations for 13 to 15 years. The employers or the recruitment agents often withhold their passports. The workers are forced to work prolonged hours, are denied rest days and holidays, and are not adequately compensated for overtime work which is exploitation, which the ILO Convention calls the abuse of a person’s “economic situation and other unfair practices.” The workers are on the receiving end of these practices.

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The exploitation of Indonesian Workers in Malaysia: Wages

In addition to being subjected to poor working conditions, Indonesian workers on plantations in Malaysia are often deprived of their legal wages. In the early 2000s, there were reports of confiscating their wages by plantation owners or agents. In 2005, the initiative set up the Indonesian government-to-government program called Jawa-Bali Infrastructure (JBI) to help improve infrastructure in Indonesia and to improve the working and living conditions of Indonesian workers in Malaysia in the plantation sector. One of the main goals was to enhance the payments of wages to Indonesian workers. Over the years, this effort reduced the number of cases involving withholding wages. But the issue remained ever-present. In October 2017, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reported that 25 workers from the JBI program were not paid for their work for more than ten days. In another case, an agent withheld the wages of 11 workers for five months. In December 2017, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reported that 13 workers in the JBI program were not paid for their work for two months.


The exploitation of Indonesian Workers in Malaysia: Debt Bondage

Indonesian workers are often lured to Malaysia with the promise of being given a job that is better than what they have at home. They are told that the job will enable them to earn a higher income. They also said they do not need to pay any initial money to the employer. But Indonesia has observed that the promise of a high income often deceives workers. The employer then forces them to borrow money from moneylenders at very high-interest rates, which they have no chance of repaying. This is one form of debt bondage that the ILO Convention prohibits. That is why the government requires workers to bring cash when they are assigned to plantations in Malaysia. The government does this to ensure workers do not fall into the trap of borrowing from moneylenders.

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Abuse by Recruitment Agents and Employers

Several cases have been of recruitment agents and plantation owners abusing Indonesian workers. These cases have been reported to the local police. These reports are of abuse, which the ILO Convention describes as “any unjust or improper treatment.” the workers have often said that they were threatened and assaulted by their employers, who are also the recruitment agents. The workers have also complained of being forced to work in unsafe conditions, with dangerous tools, or in areas with unclean water. There are also cases of sexual abuse. In 2017, one such case was reported in which four women were sexually abused by the owner of the plantation and his employees. The local police arrested four suspects. In the same year, two cases of sexual abuse were reported by two women forced to work on the plantation. The police arrested two suspects in each case.


Indonesia’s Efforts to Combat the Exploitation of its Citizens

The Indonesian government has tried to reduce the problem through several measures. There are bilateral and government-to-government programs between Indonesia and Malaysia. These programs aim to protect the rights of Indonesian workers in the plantation sector and provide assistance to those who are victims of abuse. The government has also established a hotline for Indonesian workers in Malaysia. The number is 002-886-1236-3399. The Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has also set up the “Brigadier” Complaint Desk. The workers can contact the desk by visiting the Indonesian Embassy or sending a message through social media. The Indonesian government also conducts regular inspections of recruitment agencies and plantations. In 2017, the government conducted 245 reviews. It issued 13 sanctions, including one suspension and 12 warnings.

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The exploitation of Indonesian workers in Malaysia is an unfortunate reality that has been going on for decades and needs to stop. With the help of the Malaysian government, the Indonesian government needs to take measures to protect its workers in Malaysia. The two governments can also cooperate to prevent workers from being exploited in the first place. It is important to remember that migration is a reality. Thousands of people leave their country every day and travel to another to earn a living. We need to acknowledge that countries that experience large numbers of migrants within their borders have legitimate concerns about the impact of these movements and about protecting their citizens from exploitation. At the same time, we must remember that all migrants deserve respect, dignity, and the opportunity to improve their lives.

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