Will migrant workers be able to lever their enhanced political strength into better policy making? Photo credit:

This election, more than any other previously, has seen the importance of migrant workers and migrant worker issues for the presidential campaign. Migrant workers are voting in greater numbers, organizing for their preferred candidate, and migrant worker issues have been an important dimension of the campaign. There is cause for hope. Does this campaign represent a turning point for the ongoing, seemingly intractable problem of migrant worker protection?

From around 6.5 million of Indonesia’s migrant workers (TKI), only 2 million are registered as voters, largely because of the significant challenges in obtaining accurate data and administrating registration. So migrant workers do not constitute a significant voting block, compared to 187 million total eligible voters.

But intensive political campaigning by migrant workers, volunteers and activists has produced far greater turnout amongst TKI than previous years. Their efforts have been supported by important procedural changes, such as the roll out of postal voting and a ballot drop box (which sees the election committee visit TKI workplaces and residents to collect their votes). These measures combined saw the Indonesian overseas turn-out increase significantly from 22,3% in 2009 to 44.7% in 2014 in the legislative election. Below are the 2014 results of voting by receiver country in the legislative election. Although different receiver countries see different voting patterns, in the main, PDI-P, PKS and PD what we can assume is the “TKI vote”.

Legislative Election Result in receiving countries with largest percentage of Indonesian migrant workers

No Country / entity Estimated number of Indonesian migrant workers Voting result (%)
PDI-P Golkar PKS Gerindra Demokrat PKB
1 Malaysia 1.9 million 15.69 8.87 27.43 7.08 23.41 4.63
2 Saudi Arabia 1.1 million 31.8 3.9 17.5 9.1 2.48 23.9
3 Hong Kong 150 thousands 49.5 7.9 4.5 7.6 4.0 9.6
4 United Arab Emirates 100 thousands 25.69 5.53 28.61 12.39 31.10 7.26
5 Qatar 40 thousands 12.5 1.0 44.6 1.1 6.5 17.5
6 Korea 39 thousands 44.92 1.48 20.67 13.02 3.23 7.46

The political rhetoric of TKI

Upholding a narrative of migrant workers protection is essential for the nationalist credentials of both candidates. Moreover, TKI have special economic importance. During the campaigns, both presidential candidates Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo have repeatedly called Indonesian migrant workers “pahlawan devisa” (“foreign exchange heroes”) for their remittances. Annually, TKI send about Rp 80-100 trillion (around $USD 8-10 billion) home to Indonesia.

Jokowi and Prabowo have both tried to appeal to voters through their advocacy for migrant workers. Jokowi joined the “Save Satinah” campaign, a female migrant worker on death row in Saudi Arabia after murdering her employer.

The Saudi court decreed that Satinah’s death sentence could be repealed if a diyat (concession fee) was paid to the victim’s family. The sum was set at Rp 21 miliar (around 2.1 million USD).

To this Jokowi symbolically donated Rp 10,000 or 1 dollar to the “Save Satinah” fund, expressing his solidarity with her and the fate of migrant workers in general. In the same vein, Prabowo travelled to Kuala Lumpur to support Wilfrida Soik, a migrant worker on trial for allegedly killing her employer.

Since September 2013, Prabowo has visited Wilfrida several times using his private jet and hired reputable Malaysian lawyers to defend Wilfrida. Wilfrida eventually escaped from the death penalty, exactly two days before the day of Indonesia’s legislative elections.


Prabowo in tears after the court verdict cleared Wilfrida of all charges.

Civil society splits

The election has split Indonesia’s migrant workers and their respective organizations. Muhammad Iqbal of the Indonesian Migrant Union (UNIMIG), through his president has explicitly endorsed Prabowo, citing the candidate’s concern for Wilfrida as evidence that Prabowo genuinely cares for TKI.

On the other hand, the Jakarta-based Migrant Care, one of the best organisations in the field of TKI support, proclaims itself political neutral and yet some of its leaders are clearly in the Jokowi camp. One of them is Wahyu Susilo, brother of Widji Thukul, a labor activist who disappeared in April 1998, and whose cause has attracted Jokowi’s sympathy

On the second day of the presidential campaign, Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla held a teleconference with Indonesian migrant workers in five countries. The teleconference was organised by the National Secretariat of Jokowi-JK Pro TKI, who claimed that millions of Indonesian migrant workers endorse Jokowi.

Not to be outdone, on Prabowo’s side, media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo formed “Laskar Hary Tanoesoedibjo”, which he claims has one thousand TKI members around the world supporting Prabowo.

Weak presidential policies on TKI

Both candidates have developed committed policies to the issue of migrant worker protection. On page 23 of his 41-page platform, Jokowi advocates (1) initiating a law protecting household workers, including those who work overseas and (2) providing reliable, effective and friendly public services for migrant workers beginning from their recruitment and training to right up until their return to Indonesia. On the other hand, on page 4 of his 9 page platform, Prabowo briefly mentions the importance of protecting and promoting labor rights, including the rights of TKI.

By and large, campaign rhetoric fixates on case-specific issues like those of Wilfrida and Satinah, instead of proposing long term, serious and systematic solutions.

On the campaign trail in Cimahi, West Java province, Jokowi suggested that Indonesia would transform from a “migrant worker exporting country” to a “migrant workers destination country”, which is quite unrealistic given the high unemployment rate and low wages standard to Indonesia.

Meanwhile, in Lombok on 13 June 2014, Prabowo’s running mate Hatta Rajasa promised to improve TKI’s skills by providing sufficient pre-departure training. Although Hatta’s idea seems interesting, providing training to millions of TKI candidates is a complex task and Hatta failed to explain what concrete strategies he offered.

During the third presidential debate, both candidates, especially Jokowi, criticized the poor-quality of TKI recruitment and training. Nevertheless, neither candidate identified the critical structural and institutional problems in protecting migrant workers.

As in other public policy areas, the problems of migrant workers problems have structural roots, one of which is interagency-coordination. The responsibility for migrant workers overlaps between numerous government agencies. There are about 18 government agencies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the Ministry of Labour and Transportation and the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI).

MoFA has to deal with hundreds of migrant workers issues with limited resources. In Indonesia’s Jordan embassy, for instance, eight Indonesian diplomats deal with around 40,000 thousands migrant workers, many of whom come without documents, cannot speak Arabic and cannot even read and write.


Jumhur Hidayat was head of the muddling BNP2TKI until President SBY fired him for declaring his support for Jokowi.

Meanwhile, the BNP2TKI, established in 2007 with a special view to dealing with migrant worker protection, has been made redundant due to turf wars with the Ministry of Labor and Transmigration who claims authority in providing training and education to migrant workers. There are many other agencies and ministries with unclear job descriptions on migrant workers’ issues.

Confusion at the national level is further exacerbated by differing policy perspectives between local government and the central government agencies. Some parts of the central government argue that managerial problems at home must be fixed before more migrant workers are sent abroad. In contrast, local governments argue that sending migrant workers abroad is important to remedy to high regional poverty rates and unemployment.

In Banten, the local government rejected the idea of a TKI moratorium to certain receiver countries, citing the huge contribution TKI make to local provincial development. Local governments generally prioritize the benefits they receive from migrant workers’ remittances rather than mobilise for TKI protection. Local government argues that migrant protection is a problem for the central government and Indonesian embassies.

Neither candidate has addressed the big issues: Is BNP2TKI still needed? How should coordination issues between government agencies be managed? How can illegal migrant workers be stopped? How can relations between the central government, local government and private recruitment agencies be regulated?

That the policies of both presidential candidates have completely missed the ball is unsurprising given the dismal records of the “TKI expertise” that have latched onto either camp.

Chairman of BNP2TKI since 2007, Jumhur Hidayat has joined the Jokowi camp. He was sacked by SBY shortly before the 2014 legislative campaign after founding the Alliance of Independent People, ARM, a group that explicitly supports Jokowi.

During his term as BNP2TKI chairman, Jumhur was heavily criticized for the agency’s inability to provide better protection to migrant workers. The Indonesian Ombudsman Commission even suggested that the BNP2TKI be dissolved, given the agency’s underperformance.

Now outside of government, Jumhur has criticizes the government’s inability to protect migrant workers on numerous occasions, neglecting the fact that this was something that he himself failed to do in these last seven years in office.

Jokowi and Rieke Diah Pitaloka brandish their JKW4 Save Satindah campaign t-shirts. Photo credit.

Jokowi and Rieke Diah Pitaloka brandish their JKW4 Save Satindah campaign t-shirts. Photo credit.

But there are worse problems for Jokowi’s stance on TKI than Jumhur. Muhaimin Iskandar, the PKB chairman who supports Jokowi, is also widely regarded as under-performing in his position as the current Minister for Labor and Transmigration.

During the National Secretariat of Jokowi-JK Pro TKI teleconference, an interesting incident occurred: a war of words between Marwan Jafar, an MP from PKB with a PDIP MP Rieke Dyah Pitaloka.

Although both PKB and PDIP are in the same coalition supporting Jokowi, the MPs had vastly different approaches to the problem. Marwan, the PKB politician argued that Minister Muhaimin had made a significant contribution to resolving TKI issues while Rieke pronounced Muhaimin’s efforts subpar. How will Jokowi run an effective administration with frictions like this?

Prabowo’s camp is riddled with the same problems. President of KSPI Said Iqbal, who claimed to bring thousands of migrant workers to the Prabowo vote is just another opportunist. In his declaration of support for Prabowo in Tangerang, Iqbal unilaterally told KSPI members that he will be appointed Prabowo’s Minister of Labor. Later that day, however, some KSPI branches around Indonesia rejected Iqbal and reiterated their neutrality. Sheer political opportunism in the camps’ of both candidates has politicised migrant workers.

Neither candidate so far has been able to move beyond rhetoric to managing the complexity of the migrant workers issue.

This election more than any other has raised hopes of better protection for migrant workers, but given both candidates’ lacking of clarity and decisiveness on structural problems, voters need to keep a critical stance on political commitments made by both candidates.

It is certainly not false to believe in promises made by politicians during the campaign. But, in Indonesian politics, being realistic is always important, in order to avoid fatal disappointment.

Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD candidate at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University. In 2008-2009, in cooperation with ILO Jakarta, he assisted to organize trainings on the protection of migrant workers to Indonesian officials, including diplomats and local governments.