Tortured, raped, and murdered – the case of two Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong shows the urgent need for better support for those living and working overseas, often illegally, to support their families when jobs at home are short.
The gruesome and headline-grabbing trial of a British banker for the murder of two Indonesian migrant workers tells a terrible truth. On November 1, 2014, Hong Kong police discovered the tortured and mutilated bodies of two women at Rurik Jutting’s 31st-floor luxury flat; both had been far from home and trying to make a living. The body of a Ms. Ningsih was decomposing in a suitcase; the remains of Seneng Mujiasih were discarded on the floor, covered with multiple stab wounds. Both women had repeatedly been raped and badly tortured.
In a confessional video filmed using his phone, Jutting admitted he had murdered Sumarti Ningsih after subjecting her to a horrible ordeal for over three days. Jutting said he was high on cocaine, bragging to the court he snorted 60 grams of the drug as he tortured her. At one point, he even ordered the woman to lick the dirty toilet bowl before slitting her throat.
Sumarti Ningsih, 23 and Seneng Mujiasih, 26 originally came to Hong Kong as migrant workers. And they are neither the first nor the last, Indonesians have been going overseas for work since the late 1970s. In Hong Kong alone there are more than 300,000 migrant workers, most of them originating from the Philippines and Indonesia. These women work as housemaids or domestic helpers to earn money which they send back to their families.
As most foreign currency rates are higher than that of the Indonesian Rupiah, many are tempted to work overseas and leave their families behind to gain financial stability. Some go to Hong Kong, but Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore are also popular. Acquiring a work visa is not an easy task for them, so huge numbers take on employment illegally, or resort to forged documents, even if this means they face deportation or prosecution at any time.
Foreign exchange heroes?
Indonesian migrant workers are often dubbed “foreign exchange heroes,” as they are the second largest contributor to the country’s foreign exchange income. And they bring in USD $7 million earned every year; making it hard to understand why so little has been done to facilitate these hardworking men and women. Cases of isolation, underpayment, forced labor, physical or sexual abuse, and human trafficking have dogged this group for years. Runaway workers are often accused of theft and prosecuted unfairly. In some cases, people simply disappear, and there are no investigations.
Earlier this year, worker’s rights group, Migrant Care, criticised the government’s lack of effort to support labour rights, labelling the government’s policies “discriminative” where a bureaucratic culture “has also contributed to the high cost of migration.” Since the government does not strictly oversee the recruitment process of migrant workers, rules and practices can vary widely, they say.
But knowledge of what may lie ahead does not stop Indonesians taking a leap of faith. When there are few job openings available at home, what other option do they have but to pack their luggage and try their luck abroad? Unfortunately, even if they make it back home safely, most migrant workers barely break even.
Turning a blind eye?
There has been repeated protests urging the Indonesian government to take proactive steps to protect these people. And although there has been some talk of stopping the flow of workers going overseas, or at least supervising their well-being, nothing has come of it. As such, receiving legal help, or simply contacting their embassies in life-threatening situations, is almost impossible for the vulnerable women.
Even when faced with these appalling facts, the Indonesian authorities seem to plead ignorance and let things carry on as they always have. There is no new ground-breaking policy or law, and the public can no longer stomach this kind of indifference. As the economic situation in Indonesia toughens, the public’s anger can be understood.
Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri has promised better protection for migrant workers, launching a project of six villages, “Desa Peduli Buruh Migran” (Care for Migrant Workers Villages), which will attempt to tackle the problem. Furthermore, he acknowledged that “working abroad is a choice we must honour, respect, and protect.” However, the project was launched less around three months ago and, as yet, there have been no strong results.
That concern aside, this development does show goodwill on the government’s part. The public would surely appreciate more of such projects in the future.