The dignity of the long distance worker © 2007 Duncan Graham
Most stories about Indonesian domestic workers who labor overseas are grim. Abuse, rip offs, brutality, with some Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI – Indonesian overseas labor force), coming home in wheelchairs or coffins.
But this yarn is cheeringly different – undoubtedly because the woman involved is in a class of her own.
Kaimah, 31, left Cilacap in Central Java, her husband Elia Tri Madi and their three year old son Reza two years ago with one goal: To raise enough money to buy medicine for her younger sister Suwanti who was suffering from bone cancer.
The disease is now in remission and Kaimah has stayed on in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to earn more money for Reza’s education.
Taiwanese employers reckon Indonesian maids have a reputation for being flexible and placid – unlike their colleagues from the Philippines. Kaimah’s boss Chen Kong runs a printing business; he said Filipino workers were better educated, but tended to be arrogant and consider themselves superior.
But in putting the tiny Kaimah on his payroll he’s got anything but the standard complaisant TKI. Instead he’s fostering a political activist in the making.
“We are hired for our ability to do menial work that the Taiwanese don’t want to do,” she said. “Many people look down on domestic workers from abroad, but we are ambassadors for our country.
“We should keep our head high, be proud of being Indonesians and tell the Taiwanese about our great nation. We should be able to sing and dance so we can show other countries that we are cultured people.
“But we’re not just muscles. We have brains and we must use them.”
This isn’t just empty rhetoric. Kaimah doesn’t shuffle behind her employers trying to be invisible in a pale uniform, but pedals a bike around Taipei wearing bright colors, jostling for space with the locals as an equal. She doesn’t need company when going out.
She has taught herself Mandarin and English and is at ease in both, speaking up with fluency and vigor.
On one occasion witnessed by this reporter the feisty Kaimah was in a Taipei restaurant when it was visited by a delegation of senior Indonesian bureaucrats and national politicians on an official visit to Taiwan.
Others sat silent, conscious that in the presence of such VIPs there was no role for humble manual workers. But Kaimah, who was caring for her boss’s son, was unfazed by the event, the surroundings or her place in the proceedings.
“Maybe it’s because my family originally came from West Sumatra,” she said. “I may be a Javanese but I don’t like this going round and round. I want to be direct.”
So she took the opportunity to dispense with the standard Javanese formalities and give the visitors a good blast about the plight of the TKI.
In her sights were employers who maltreat workers, labor agencies who cheat TKI out of their wages with illegal fees, banks who charge 19 per cent for loans, and workers who sign contracts they don’t understand.
Kaimah stressed that the Indonesian government should take a more vigorous role in protecting its citizens abroad and enforce the law. The visitors, nonplussed by the outburst, just nodded and departed.
Late last year the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (there is no embassy because Indonesia officially follows the One China Policy, recognizing only the People’s Republic of China) installed a computer system that records short message service (SMS) calls 24 hours a day from disgruntled TKI. So far it has taken more than 7,000 hits.
It also runs three shelters for abused workers and those seeking new placements.
But Kaimah isn’t just critical of bureaucrats, bad employers and sly labor agencies. She also knows that some TKI get themselves into trouble for not being assertive and trusting too much. Some get into relationships with Taiwanese men, though they have families back home.
Lending money to ‘friends’ who then abscond with the cash, trusting others to repatriate money instead of using banks and running away from employers add to the woes of the vulnerable and ill prepared.
Walking off the job isn’t an unusual response by maids working in Indonesia who get scolded by their bosses, or find family pressures to return to their village irresistible. But breaking a contract overseas can be serious. At any given time more than 200 TKI are in detention in Taiwan following breaches of their work visas.
There are 105,000 TKI in Taiwan and most are women. They’re attracted by the high wages but not all manage to repatriate their earnings. Budget management is critical; some let their earnings go to their head.
“The temptation to buy things like handphones and clothes is very great, but we have to remember why we are here,” said Kaimah. “Some women earn a lot of money but they lose it to grasping relatives or spend it. Within three months of returning home they have nothing.
“If they’d been careful they could have used the capital to start a business.”
In the absence of an independent trade union for the TKI Kaimah has become the workers’ unofficial representative. Her ability to confront issues and language fluency also led her to be recognized as an outstanding representative of her country at a big public event. This was staged by Radio Taiwan International and local companies to thank the TKI for their contribution to the economy.
Kaimah took the opportunity at the event to read an emotional and highly personal poem she’d written about the trials of long distance separation and which was published in the national press.
In it she praised the faithfulness, love, support and tolerance of her husband who she hadn’t seen for two years. He works for a catering company in Jakarta.
“It’s important that the Taiwanese recognize that we are family people who have made great sacrifices to go overseas far from our loved ones,” she said. “People who become TKI have to be strong. It is difficult.
“I’m proud to be an Indonesian but want to know why we have to export our labor and can’t provide jobs in our homeland, when the economy of other countries is so good they can employ overseas maids. Why?”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 September 2007)