Medan, Indonesia – When Indonesian migrant worker Figo Paroji worked on a construction site in Malaysia, the end of the year always brought a sense of dread.
âI would campaign every year. I wanted to sensitize migrant workers coming from Indonesia illegally by boat and warn them not to make the crossing in November or December, âtold Al Jazeera Paroji, who worked in the western state of Selangor from 2006 to 2019. âAt the end of the year the waves were still huge and it was so risky. “
Paroji left Malaysia and is now the coordinator of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, but waves of Indonesian workers making the treacherous journey continue to pour in.
On December 15, a boat carrying around 50 Indonesian migrant workers capsized off the coast of Malaysia’s Johor state in bad weather.
Fourteen survivors were found on Tanjung Balau beach – along with the wreckage of the boat – and 18 bodies were found, according to the Malaysian Maritime Police Agency. At least 20 people are still missing, presumed dead.
Paroji, who was undocumented for three of the 13 years he worked in Malaysia, said workers continue to risk their lives by traveling to Indonesia on dangerous small boats out of desperation.
âThe main reason people are reckless enough to make the trip is because of economic factors,â he said. âThere just aren’t the same number of vacancies in Indonesia as in Malaysia. “
Indonesia’s unemployment rate in August stood at 6.49%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Indonesia’s poverty rate stood at 10.4 percent in March 2021, up from 9.2 percent in September 2019, according to World Bank data.
There are an estimated 2.7 million Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia, although precise figures are difficult to obtain, as only around a third of workers are believed to be documented, according to the Indonesian ambassador. in Malaysia Hermono, who like many Indonesians has only one name. . Migrants hold jobs ranging from domestic helpers to construction and plantation workers.
âA lot of small businesses accept anyone,â Paroji said. âThey don’t have permission to employ foreign workers, but they don’t care as long as the labor is cheap.
Reports of physical and psychological abuse are common as migrant workers often do not have access to unions or legal and regulated employment protections.
In November 2020, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called on Malaysian authorities to monitor employers and protect Indonesian migrant workers, following an outcry over a case in which an Indonesian domestic worker was tortured, scalded with hot and hungry water.
Stories of abuse resonate with Anita, a 42-year-old domestic helper who moved to Malaysia in 2018 after having what she thought was lucky.
After struggling to find work in her home province of North Sumatra, Anita was introduced to an employment agent through a mutual friend who promised to work as a domestic helper in Kuala Lumpur.
Once Anita arrived, her stroke of luck quickly turned into a nightmare.
“My employers immediately seized my passport and bank book,” Anita, who asked not to use her real name, told Al Jazeera. âThey told me that since they were paying for my food and my accommodation, I wouldn’t need any money of my own. They said they would transfer my monthly salary to my agent and keep it for me until the end of my contract.
This was only the beginning of his problems.
Anita said she was forced to work from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day and barely had enough to eat. Breakfast was dry bread with no butter or jam, while lunch and dinner usually consisted of rice grits and chicken bones with little meat on it.
“I was made to clean the house with bleach without being given any protective gear like gloves,” she said, adding that the skin on her hands peeled off regularly, leaving her in the dark. agony.
After 11 months of abuse, Anita begged to be allowed to return home. Although her employer gave in, she only received a plane ticket home and a month’s salary of $ 237 (RM 1,000) in cash.
It was not until she found a lawyer in North Sumatra who agreed to represent her pro bono that she was able to come to an agreement with the employment agency which granted her the rest of the l money owed to him.
No other choice
Around the same time as Antia’s ordeal, the death of Adelina Sau, a domestic worker in Indonesia’s eastern province of Nusa Tenggara, sparked public outcry after it emerged that she had been beaten by her employer and made to sleep outside next to the family dog.
Sau’s employer was charged with his murder but acquitted by the Penang High Court, a verdict which was later upheld by an appeals court. An appeal against this decision of the Attorney General is pending before the Federal Court of Malaysia.
Gabriel Goa, president of the Legal Institute for Justice and Peace, told Al Jazeera that migrant rights activists have campaigned for justice in the case outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta in recent weeks.
“The smuggling of workers by sea from Indonesia to Malaysia continues without any firm action from the Malaysian and Indonesian governments,” Goa said, adding that he believed the authorities had turned a blind eye in part due to corruption by smuggling networks.
“Sadly, tragic events such as the latest sinking of a boat which resulted in the deaths of trafficked persons do not create any form of deterrence for traffickers.”
In addition to tougher penalties for traffickers, former migrant worker Paroji said there was a need to better understand why workers risk anything to reach Malaysian shores.
âIn my experience, people continue to use these perilous sea routes because there is no other choice and they cannot legally enter Malaysia,â Paroji said. âMany of them have already been blacklisted, having been caught working illegally in Malaysia in the past, so they are forced to use these kinds of backwater channels or enter on a tourist visa. “
âWhy does this keep happening? Malaysia has the job opportunities, âhe added. âThe people who make the crossings know what they are doing is wrong, but they feel like they have no other choice. “