Coolie nation and the feminisation of poverty

Media Indonesia – June 9, 2005
People’s Democratic Party chairperson Dita Indah Sari (Tempo)
People’s Democratic Party chairperson Dita Indah Sari (Tempo)

 ”I did this so that we would not be a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations” – Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno

Dita Indah Sari, Jakarta – For some time new, the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America have been experiencing what is referred to as the feminisation of poverty. For centuries, colonialism encouraged backwardness in technological and human resources, inequality and a poor quality of life. Capitalism, which on the one hand opened the door to liberation and cultural enlightenment for women, at the same time, obviously exploits them. In the past and now, women are the social group which is most impoverished; the most oppressed of the oppressed.

The feminisation of poverty means that the majority of those who are poor are women. It remains difficult for women to obtain equality with men and find opportunities to achieve a decent quality of life and their social and economic rights continue to be marginalised. Data from the United Nations shows that of the 1.3 billion citizens in the world who are characterised as poor, 70 per cent are women. How can’t the world be full of poor women when women’s average wage is only 75 per cent of men?

The feminisation of migration

This is the reason why the number of women who are working overseas is greater than the number of men (the feminisation of migration). According to Department of Women’s Affairs, the total number of women migrant workers between 2001-04 was 1,047,130 (77 per cent from a total of 1,357,703 people). The destruction of Indonesia’s national economy as a result of neoliberal policies which are characterised by mass dismissals, unemployment and rural poverty, force women to migrate, primarily to Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Taiwan to seek employment.

In its 2003 report, the Solidarity Centre, a US labour non-government organisation said that employers in Malaysia and Hong Kong prefer to employ Indonesian women workers in the domestic sector. Our women workers are the preferred choice not because of their professionalism, but because in general they know little about their rights, are not fluent in English and are less lightly to report violence or abuse. Indeed, the high demand for Indonesian women workers is also taken advantage of by the government to disguise its failure to solve the problem of unemployment instead of trying to strengthen migrant workers’ bargaining position and protecting their rights through bilateral diplomacy.

With only 6.5 per cent of the state budget being allocated to the education sector, it is not surprising that the literacy levels among women is 80.5 per cent compared to 90.9 per cent for men (United Nations Development Program/Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001). This is disgraceful in comparison with the literacy levels for women in Vietnam, which on average is 94 per cent, even though the Vietnam War only ended in 1975 leaving behind it unimaginable levels of destruction.

Political factors

In reality however, political factors are the key to the welfare of our migrant workers. The low quality of education and the poor understanding of their rights would not be a reason for employers not to pay wages or commit acts of violence as long as there was diplomatic pressure and tight supervision by the Indonesian government.

The attitude of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government, which gave in to Malaysia’s decision to criminalise migrant workers without proper documentation is evidence that the government is failing to protect its people. In reality, many migrant workers loose their documentation when they change jobs because previous employers hold the documents. It is this acquiescence by the government which legitimises Malaysia’s rulers to conduct raids and punish migrant workers with caning and jail sentences. In March this year alone, 16 Indonesian migrant workers were punished by caning as a result of immigration offences.

Yudhoyono’s meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi was not to strengthen efforts to take legal action against Malaysian employers who do not pay their workers’ wages. Indeed this was abandoned before the meeting even ended. The welfare of women workers, who have been abused, raped and who face the death penalty didn’t change the weak and cowardly character of “coolie” diplomacy by our government.

The bureaucracy at home worsens this shameful foreign diplomacy, which directly and indirectly plays a role in exploiting workers. The police, immigration and customs officials, the department of labour, embassy and consular staff along with local bureaucrats, are collectively responsible for the violation of workers’ rights during recruitment, the falsification of documents and facilitating the use of illegal labour and exploitative activities by transportation and recruitment services.


The term migrant workers appears to have become a euphemism for the trafficking of women, even though their decision to work overseas is generally their own and made without coercion. However there are many cases where the employment of women overseas is exploitative, demeaning and characterised by physical, psychological and sexual violence. Of course these jobs are far different from the ones they are promised when they leave home. As a result the dispatch of migrant workers is accompanied with the falsification of documents, deception over their employment status in their destination country and with high costs which traps them in debt and is in fact is a form of trafficking.

Every single Indonesian Embassy or Consulate should provide a place to process workers’ documentation quickly, easily and cheaply so that any worker who looses their documentation can get it renewed or replaced without having to be forcibly repatriated to Indonesia.

As long as the Yudhoyono government does not have the courage to deal with the problem though diplomatic efforts and bilateral agreements, the “legal” trafficking of women will continue. Cleaning up the bureaucracy is a priority at home. Political solutions are the number one issue which could temporarily provide protection to migrant workers.

Meanwhile creating employment opportunities at home will remain difficult if the government just relies on foreign investment. The strength and productivity of the national economy, in particular making the rural sector a recruitment field for migrant workers, must be development in order that ordinary people can find productive employment. Subsidies from the state budget are needed to build domestic industries. Creating educated and skilled human capital requires providing a national education system that is cheap or even free at all levels.

The question is, does the government have the political will to seriously adjust its neoliberal economic policies, which are resulting in increasing unemployment and poverty so that we do not become a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations?

[Dita Indah Sari is the general chairperson of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and the general secretary of the Indonesian National Labour front for Struggle (FNPBI). Translated by James Balowski.]