Female Indonesian migrant workers – are they being left behind?

Let’s not leave anyone behind. Indonesian women carry the burden and deserve to be at the forefront of a labor transformation.

Female Indonesian migrant workers – are they being left behind? Photo: Pixabay

Migration has, and still, plays a significant role in today’s global economic growth, innovation and sustainable development, through both economic and social remittances. Fortunately, migration is timely given the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development plan, with a specific target: Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 10.7 “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration, and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.” Also, migration is linked to many other SDG targets.

Despite the fact that migration allows people to achieve a better life and decent work, migrants are often challenged by inequalities in access to opportunities. In this sense, migrant women tend to be worse off as they are more frequently affected by socioeconomic challenges due to traditional gender roles. Hence, discussion on gender and migration is significantly important. In doing so, this essay unveils the agency and vulnerability of women migrant workers as the (forgotten) remittance heroes, and demonstrates a good practice of empowerment to achieve the SDG targets to leave no one behind.

Indonesian migration

Many Indonesians continue to seek work abroad. This situation is inseparable from the implications of global market dynamics and politics that open up opportunities for the integrity of the workforce across countries. The Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Agency documents the placement of migrant workers. From documentations during the past five years, the number of migrant worker placements shows fluctuating graphs. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of Indonesian migrant workers increased with a growth rate of around 11 percent per year.

Covid-19 has triggered global chaos. In particular, migrant workers have suffered.


Furthermore, the proportion of migrant workers based on gender was still dominated by women, as the number of the placement of female migrant workers has been more than 60 percent since 2015. This trend can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, migration can surely contribute to the empowerment of women. Therefore, they can change their status. By migrating, it allows women to get access to education and careers that might not be available in their countries of origin. Also, migrant women may earn better incomes, enjoy greater degrees of autonomy and freedom, and exercise new leadership roles. Furthermore, many migrant women provide steady flows of remittances to their home countries.

On the other hand, increased participation of women in labor migration has created the commercialized migration of domestic workers (the maid trade), the migration and trafficking of women in the sex industry, and the organized migration of women for marriage as mail-order brides (Carling, 2005).

Feminization of migration

The feminization of immigration is the trend of emigration of women for economic independence by dominating the domestic and care sector due to traditional gender roles (United Nations International Research and Training Institute, 2007), via which women’s social role within societies is often forgotten. This trend can be seen through commercialized domestic work. In the case of Indonesia, the domestic sector was still a dominant type of work taken by migrant workers during the past five years. However, between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of migrant workers in the domestic sector declined significantly.

According to an analysis by Migrant Care in 2020, this can be read in two phases. First, in 2016, the significant decrease in migrant domestic workers was in implication of the Indonesia Ministry of Manpower Decree No 260/2016 concerning the cessation and prohibition of migrant worker demonstrations on individual users in Middle Eastern countries. This fluctuated in 2017 due to widening opportunities for domestic workers in Asia-Pacific countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia after the moratorium on the placement of Indonesian migrant workers to Middle Eastern countries.

Between agency and vulnerability

Migration, however, can contribute to women’s empowerment in some ways. First, migration provides women access to education and careers that might not be available in their countries of origin. Second, migrant women possibly earn better incomes, enjoy greater degrees of autonomy and freedom, and exercise new leadership roles. Third, many migrant women provide steady flows of remittances to their countries of origin, and therefore they can change their status, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Migrant women possibly earn better incomes, enjoy greater degrees of autonomy and freedom, and exercise new leadership roles.

The main benefit of labor migration are remittance flows from migrant workers’ financial transactions (inward remittances), as a source of state revenue and have a significant contribution to gross domestic product. Accordingly, the remittances earned by Indonesian migrant workers consistently increased between 2016 and 2018, along with the increasing numbers of labor migration.

According to the 2020 World Migration Report by the IOM, Indonesia is among the top 10 Asian countries receiving remittances from migrant workers. Significantly, remittances from Indonesian migrant workers increased in 2018 to around $11 billion.

Migrant workers, however, do not only contribute to economic remittances but also social remittances. Former migrant workers have in fact become social agents who bring work skills, and social and cultural values, that they have learned while working abroad. Social remittances work on habits, behavior and mindset in the context of professionalism, and personal in a way of accepting differences and tolerance (Maulida et al, 2019). This way, former women migrant workers probably share their skills and knowledge back home to relatives and neighbors, to increase empowerment.

The 2030 agenda

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 interconnected global goals to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The SDGs address the global challenges including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, and peace and justice, and are expected to achieve the goals that relate to the three dimensions of social, economic and environmental development by 2030.

In Indonesia, it has been five years since the government started to commit and implement the SDGs.

The UN’s “leave no one behind” policy explains whether people were left behind due to the five factors including discrimination, geography, governance, socioeconomic status, and shocks and fragility. To leave no one behind, however, requires the role of governments and public participation in ways to ensure the rights of citizens to be involved in the development process by investigating who is the left behind. The investigation of women migrant workers and their vulnerabilities due to inequalities, access to resources such as economic opportunities, education and information, indicates those who are left behind.

Isyfi'afiani is a writer on feminist affairs and an alumna of the School of Government and Public Policy Indonesia.

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