Working in the afternoon sun, Aneda, a 24-year-old farmer from Indonesia, deftly holds her knife as she cuts away at the full-grown stalks. She gathers the stalks into bundles, and later beats the bundles against a wooden board. The precious grains — which she has seen grow over the past 6 months — spill onto a green net.
“I suppose we don’t get much,” says Aneda, who works the fields alongside her mother. “In one day we might get 50 trays of threshed rice.”
Similiar scenes are enacted all over Aneda's province, Indramyu, a region of scattered villages and endless rice-fields. The region produces 3 percent of Indonesia's total rice, an astonishing amount for a small province on the tip of Java.
But apart from providing food, Indramayu nourishes another important demand: migrant workers. What follows is a portrait of their lives, told from the perspective of three Indonesian women as they leave their homes in search of work.
Each year, men and women leave this region in their hundreds — for places as varied as Kuwait, Hong Kong and Singapore. Foreign lands offer what home cannot — an escape from poverty. But the dream of earning money abroad often goes awry. In order to leave, most take on large debts during the recruitment and training stage. These debts later create the conditions for a pliable workforce – willing to work long hours but afraid to complain about exploitative conditions.
Problems are especially acute for female domestic workers, who work in private residences and who make up the majority of Indonesia’s 6.5 million migrants.
According to the ILO, up to 80 per cent of these domestic workers endure isolation, underpayment, long working hours, forced labour, human trafficking and violence.
The lives of these women are never far from the news. Stories of abuse, exploitation and excessive debts are common, with a high proportion of problems coming from the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia alone, 33 Indonesian women, mostly domestic workers, are on death row, facing charges of adultery, assault, and even witchcraft.
Indonesian fishermen are also regularly trafficked to work on fishing boats. They work long hours, sleep in cramped quarters and are often underpaid — exactly the experience Samudi had when he was worked on Taiwanese fishing boat in 2012, where he received 20 dollars a month. He and his fellow fishermen did not touch land for 10 months.
Samudi's wife, Kanipah, was also exploited as a domestic worker in Qatar. She was paid 20% less than she was promised, worked long hours and says she met many other domestic workers with similar complaints.
Not all experiences are this extreme. The life of a migrant worker can often feel like a gamble, and much depends on the employers one receives and the laws of host countries. Many return better off, with money to build new houses and send their children to university. Some open up new businesses, which in turn stimulates local development.
There are even roads known as "migrant lanes", rows of houses built with the wealth of migrant remittances. Thick with fresh paint, the houses stand as living proof, as proud boasts even, that success abroad is possible.
But for all their grandeur, the houses illuminate a hard truth, especially for women like Aneda. If Indramayu provides family and security, it offers little in the way of opportunity. For every 5 kilograms of rice she harvests, she receives 1 kilogram in payment.
Aneda's story is particularly revealing. Earlier this year, she lived in Singapore as a domestic worker, where she says she was overworked, underpaid, and mistreated. 6 months after arriving, and despite the huge debts she took on in order to migrate, she asked to be released from her contract. She barely broke even.
Aneda is not the first in her family to seek work abroad. A shy, quietly spoken woman, she reveals that 9 years ago, her sister went to Kuwait as a domestic worker. She lost touch with the family 4 years ago and has not been heard of since. To this day, there has be no formal investigation into the matter.
Nevertheless, Aneda still wants to try her luck overseas. "In the future, I want to go to Taiwan. My friend said the salaries are higher there. And when my contract is finished and I'm back home, I [will] build a new house.”
If Aneda goes to Taiwan, she is determined her fortunes will be different.
NEXT: Preparing for Singapore: A Migrant's Journey
Crossing the Straits
The flow of migrants from Indonesia to Singapore is one of the busiest migratory pathways in South-east Asia. There are currently 220,000 domestic workers in the country, the majority of whom are Indonesian.
Working conditions in the country vary enormously. Many are rewarded fairly for their work, and end up with caring families. They are adequately fed, given proper accommodation, and granted a day off every week.
But for thousands of others, life in Singapore is characterised by high debts, unreasonable working hours and limited labour rights.
There are also many cases of abuse. HOME, a migrant workers advocacy group, registered 47 cases of physical abuse in 2014, as well as 9 cases of sexual harassment. The NGO has also registered complaints about poor living conditions, unjustified salary deductions, and horrific cases of food deprivation.
With its wealth and international standing, social workers say Singapore should be leading light in Asia, a model of labour relations for other countries to follow. But the reality is far from ideal.
There is no minimum wage in the country, and domestic workers receive no union representation. Domestic workers are also excluded from the country’s Employment Act – a cornerstone of labour legislation which grants workers a mandatory day off, regulated working hours, and the right to change employers.
For Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME, this is the root of many problems. He says that if the government is serious about improving the livelihood of its domestic workers, a fundamental revision of legislation is needed.
The recruitment process
But problems in Singapore are exacerbated by problems in Indonesia.
Wahyu Susilo of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based NGO, says that aspiring migrants must overcome various barriers at home before they are sent abroad, including unscrupulous brokers, crowded training centres, and exorbitant fees.
These practices flourish in Indonesia because of weak governmental oversight and poor law enforcement, says Susilo, who added that the government urgently needed to develop stronger policies to protect its migrant population.
Of particular concern are unlicensed brokers – also known as 'sponsors' – who recruit aspiring migrants from towns and rural villages, relying on networks and contacts they have built over years of recruiting.
Many sponsors abide by the law and perform what they see as a vital service, finding jobs for domestic workers both abroad and in Indonesia.
But Migrant Care says that many sponsors actively deceive women. "On many occasions the information women are given is not correct," says Susilo. "The salary is not the same as what was promised and the women receive something else. This lack of transparency at the beginning is the cause of many problems.”
He also says that some sponsors charge excessive recruitment fees, which women pay by taking out high-interest loans. Interest rates can be as high as 60 percent, with loans typically in excess of $2000.
He added that under-age migrants are sometimes recruited under conditions indicative of trafficking.
"Their ages are falsified. They are made to pay large sums of money and wind up trapped in debt. These are workers who, according to ILO, should be working 8 hours a day, but in reality it's more like 24 hours a day."
Gatot Abdullah Mansyur, former head of the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), says that the government has improved practices in recent years by introducing a national licensing system for both recruiters and migrants.
"Recruiters are registered with us and we provide them with an official identification card and training on how to recruit would-be workers ethically, so that the recruitment process is not coercive or exploitative."
He says that migrants without government-issued cards were barred from leaving the country, and that the government regularly inspected recruitment agencies and acted on tip-offs alleging illegal practices.
Security checks have improved along border points, but NGOs say exploitation is still a regular feature of the training stage, a mandatory process which occurs at specialised centres around the country and which takes forty days to complete.
For many new recruits, the training is relatively straightforward. Women are taught how to perform basic household tasks and armed with knowledge about their basic rights and entitlements. Their fees are set at government regulated levels, and they are given adequate food and accommodation.
But for many others, the process is full of exploitative practices, including deception about the cost of training, confiscation of personal documents, and insufficient provisions.
“There were no mattresses and no pillows,” Wati, a domestic worker, remembers of her training centre 16 years ago. “We had to sleep on the floor.”
Wati (not her real name) also recalls showering in groups of seven women or more, all of them standing in their clothes. They were too shy – and too religious – to remove them.
“I stayed for two months,” Wati said, “but some women stayed for five months or longer.”
Many facilities have improved since Wati's experience from the late 1990's, but inadequate provisions are still common complaints, according to Susilo of Migrant Care. “We are always finding migrant workers in cramped rooms and living with poor sanitary conditions. In one case we found 200 migrant workers sharing two or three toilets."
Some women are also forced to take contraception injections, according to a 2013 report by Amnesty International. Centres can make hundreds of dollars from an individual — taken as salary reductions once a migrant begins earning — and since women cannot go abroad if they are pregnant, some agencies protect women like commodities.
The confiscation of personal documents, in order to keep women from running away, is also a common practice.
According to Migrant Care, these and other problems would be solved by ending the domination of private companies over the training process. The NGO says that the women are the victims of an unregulated market driven by greed.
But for Eka Salim, who runs a training center in Semerang, the problems lie with unethical companies, not with the industry as a whole. He says that many companies are offering legitimate services: charging money in return for accommodation and training. But problems arise, he says, when centers cut corners in order to maximize profits — a practice which leads to inadequate training, insufficient food and accommodation, and occasionally to forged documentation and under-age trafficking. He adds that some Singaporean employment agencies know of these unethical practices, but turn a blind eye as they have no control over their Indonesian counterparts.
Singaporean employment agencies cannot control recruitment and training practices in Indonesia, but they can exercise a strong influence on the conditions migrant workers agree to. This can happen at a very early stage in the migration process, during Skype interviews conducted between domestic workers in Indonesia and potential employers in Singapore. The interviews usually last no longer than 5 minutes, and are facilitated by staff-members from Indonesian training centres and Singaporean employment agencies.
According to Istiana, a 37-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia, women often feel pressured during these interviews. In order to please their employers, some end up agreeing to unreasonable conditions: no off-days, limited use of mobile phones and excessive working hours. She says that even experienced migrant workers are affected by this pressure, as they know employers prefer 'humble' and 'obedient' workers.
During her latest interview, Istiana says she was granted the use of a phone in the evenings, but unable to secure a weekly day-off. For someone who enjoyed greater liberties in Dubai, the phone must feel like a limited concession.
But presenting an attitude of willingness and enthusiasm is essential. If someone appears too 'stubborn' the job simply goes to someone else.
With few opportunities to sustain her in Salatiga, Istiana says that she feels compelled to go abroad. After 12 years of life as a domestic worker, she still hasn’t made enough money to fulfil her dream: to start a small business in Indonesia where she might work for herself, on her own terms.
"I am tired of always working under people. I want to open one small business so that I can earn everyday and stay at home and watch my daughter and my family."
She hopes that Singapore will be the last time she works overseas.
Neatly pressing her clothes into a small backpack, Istiana will soon exchange a world she knows for one she doesn’t. This will be her third time working abroad, but the trips are always accompanied by a sense of risk and uncertainty. Her time in Saudi Arabia was a depressing and sometimes violent encounter, while Dubai was safe and rewarding. What will Singapore be?
Arriving in Singapore
Istiana's flight – which she takes with five other migrant workers – only takes a few hours. But when she steps onto the tarmac the world will seem utterly different.
In a few minutes she is greeted by a "runner", a representative of her employment agency, and within a few hours she finds herself in an air-conditioned shopping centre.
The next few days are among her strangest experiences in the country.
Before meeting their employers, a domestic worker typically stays with their agencies for 3-4 days, sitting in agency offices by day and returning to private dormitories in the evening.
The offices where they sit, based in various shopping centres, are highly controversial. Domestic workers say the environment is highly commodified, and there are persistent complaints of women being mistreated by staff members and even underfed. Until recently, the offices were also full gaudy signs that lured clients with promotional offers and discounts, a practice that was discontinued after an Al-Jazeera investigation in 2014.
Istiana, who spent two days at a shopping centre, remembers the conditions as humiliating. "I watched all those things. Those signs with 'cheap price' and 'discount maids' and all these things. But these are people [the signs are talking about]. I hate that."
Ummai Ummairoh, a former domestic worker, and president of the Indonesian Family Network (IFN), says the shopping centres made women look like "dolls at a supermarket.”
For most, the shopping centres are odd experiences that take no longer than a week. But some domestic workers return to the centres for as long as a month. These women are sometimes referred to as "transfer maids" and are looking for new employers after being released from their previous contracts.
NGOs say that women ask to be transferred for various reasons, but most complaints involve excessive working hours, underpayment, and discrepancies between promised and actual working conditions. John Gee, past president of TWC2, says that "since neither employers nor the agencies generally make a lot of effort to match a worker to their stated needs, it is no wonder that some workers can't cope."
The language of these shopping centres can also be demeaning. Domestic workers who have just arrived are known as "fresh" maids, and racial stereotypes of the women – who come from Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar – are not uncommon.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, a Singaporean employment agent said that some employers "prefer" Indonesian domestic workers because they are seen as submissive and appear to know "less about their rights."
Shelley Thio of TWC2 says that other stereotypes include Burmese domestic workers as "gentle" and "submissive", and Filipinos as strong-willed and independent.
"These racial stereotypes and perceptions lead to practices that unfairly restrict the rights and diminish the value of foreign domestic workers," she says, and added that "workers are paid different levels of salary according to their national origins."
A number of domestic workers are also instructed to perform what is known as "live-training". The "training" is performed in public view, and women can spend hours ironing the same shirt or cradling the same baby doll. Some women can also be seen pushing their colleagues in wheel-chairs, as though caring for an elderly person.
'United Channel,' an employment agency where "live-training" occurs, says that these are legitimate exercises. Responding to controversy over an Al Jazeera investigation, the agency said the women being trained on their premises were "happy" and were learning new skills.
But the argument is a tenuous one. Since domestic workers undergo training in their home countries, at centres which directly deal with Singaporean employment agencies, it is unclear what, if anything, the women are learning. Equally worrying is why employment agencies allow these practices to take place in public view, with little apparent concern for the well-being of the domestic workers involved.
In response to recent criticism, the Singaporean government urged employment agencies to "accord foreign domestic workers (FDWs) basic respect and human dignity” at employment agencies. It also said it would penalise "unacceptable practices," and made particular reference to the "inappropriate display” of migrant workers and "insensitive advertising."
While certain advertisements are ill-judged, they have their source in real market pressures felt by employment agencies (EA's) all over the country. There are hundreds of EA's in Singapore, competing in a crowded market for a limited number of customers. The competition leads to a downward pressure on prices, and some of these costs are passed on to domestic workers as 'placement fees', which can include charges related to training, accomodation, medical check-ups, food, transport and recruitment. Once a domestic worker begins earning, placement fees are taken in the form of salary deductions.
Singaporean regulations state that deductions should not go beyond a two month period, but NGOs say deductions are well in excess of this figure, even if salaries have improved in recent years.
According to John Gee, "Broadly, when TWC2 started in 2003, domestic workers faced deductions equivalent to six months of their salaries, and by 2010, the deductions amounted to around eight or nine months of their salaries."
But Gee says that the problem requires an international solution, as deductions imposed by Singaporean EA's are partly determined by training and recruitment fees from overseas countries. "The ILO Domestic Workers Convention calls for all placement costs to be borne by employers, with no charge to workers, which we'd support, but this can be made easier to accept if a serious effort is made to bring down the charges in the first place."
Some countries, like the Phillipines, take a strong stance on eradicating placement fees for domestic workers. But for women like Istiana the argument can feel academic. Four months into her work, she says she still has large debts to pay off and has little to support herself or her family in Salatiga.
Like most other domestic workers on new contracts, it will take her at least 6 months before she can start sending money home.
NEXT: A Migrant's Life
Over the duration of their contracts, domestic workers are obliged to live in the residence of their employers. This is known as Singapore's "live-in" law, and is fiercely contested by social workers, who say that the rule makes women vulnerable to excessive working hours. If there is no way of leaving work, there is no way of clocking out.
For Tutik and Anandha, two domestic workers from Indonesia, this means two very different things.
Anandha, who has been in Singapore since 2007, says she was overworked by her first employers, and unable to take any days off. But conditions are much more reasonable with her current employers, she says, and she is given a day off every Sunday.
Tutik, who came to Singapore in 2012, works long hours and constantly feels overburdened. She says her working conditions have not improved since she came.
Both take care of children and run their family households – but both have ended up with completely different lives.
Every day Tutik wakes up at 5 am, just before the sun filters through her curtains. On some mornings she finds that Izzarti – one of the children she looks after – has crept into her bed. The relationship between the parents is fraught, Tutik says, and when arguments break out the children go to her for comfort.
Before anyone wakes, Tutik will be gliding through the house – a small apartment in a residential tower – making silent preparations for the day to come. There are four family members in the two-bedroom apartment: the parents, who Tutik has always called 'sir' and 'mam,' and their dauthers Izzarti and Yi Li. For nearly three years, Tutik and Yi Li have been sharing the same room.
The family's day begins at 7 am, and by then Tutik will have cleaned the house, made breakfast, and prepared the girls for school. Every morning there is a customary moment of chaos and panic before the family is ready.
There are few pauses in Tutik's day – and even the pauses are filled with anticipation. Izzarti, whose school day begins later than Yi Li's, needs to catch the bus at noon. In the meantime, groceries need to be bought, clothes washed, rooms cleaned. Whenever she can, Tutik will perform her prayers as a Muslim.
On most days, and after picking up Izzarti from school, Tutik goes to the grandmother's house. There Tutik says she performs the "usual assorted chores: sweeping, vacuuming, mopping." She also helps out with cooking.
Domestic workers are not supposed to work at more than one residence under Singaporean law, but TWC2 says this rule is regularly broken, and according to Tutik this is part of her everyday life.
She has held this schedule for the past two and a half years, and on most nights finishes work around 10 or 11. Throughout her entire contract, Tutik says she hasn't taken a day off.
According to her employer, Tutik decided not to take a day off in order to save money. But for Tutik the reasons are more complex. While she says that days off are "wasteful," because they mean lost earnings, she also says her "employer doesn't want us to take days off; after all, someone's got to look after the little kids."
Despite her fondness for the children, she also speaks of the difficulty of caring for them on a full-time basis, and her growing sense of distance from her own children in Indonesia, whom she texts by phone once or twice a week. At the same time she has become a surrogate parent for Izzarti and Yi Li in Singapore, she has become an absent parent for her daughters in Indonesia.
"Of course, I miss my kids, my family, my husband," she says. "But looking forward to my children's future, it is my obligation. It's my own responsibility as a parent."
As with many other migrants, that sense of responsibility sustains Tutik through long periods of debt and doubt. She says it took her 8 months of work before her agency stopped taking salary deductions. "After that 8 months, I started getting paid. But that initial period of work was just in order to get accepted to work [in Singapore]."
Later that year, and just as Tutik had cleared off her debts, her mother passed away in Indonesia, a few days before Eid al-Fitr, a major Muslim holiday. "At that point, I thought I ought to go back home", Tutik said. "But since my contract wasn't over yet, that wasn't possible."
When her contract expires in a few months, and when she returns to Indonesia, she says she will hold a gathering – a "selamatan" or "kenduri" ceremony – to commemorate her mother.
Anandha came to Singapore with more debts than many. After suffering a motorcycle accident in Indonesia in 2006, her family sustained health-care bills of more than 10 million Rupiah (1,000 USD).
She saw Singapore as a way of paying back her parents, who went into debt on her behalf.
Like most domestic workers, Anandha says her start in Singapore was difficult. Her salary was docked for eight months, during which time she received a stipend of $SGD 10 per month. Thereafter she began receiving her full salary of $10 a day – or $320 per month.
During her first two years, she says she did not receive any off-days.
After those difficult first years, Anandha says she is grateful for her current situation. She receives a day off every week from her current employers, and says that her time in Singapore is much more social.
She is a committe member of the Indonesian Family Network (IFN), a group of domestic workers in Singapore, and her weekends are filled with picnics, volleyball games, and meetings with fellow workers. Taking advantage of her days off, she has also been able to complete a university course in business administration.
For Tutik, Singapore has been a lonely and difficult experience. But for Anandha, the gamble is starting to work. She is clear of her debts and is beginning to save money for her future.
Once her contract expires next year, she hopes to start a fish and chicken farm in Indonesia on land owned by her parents.
NEXT: Returning Home
It's been years since Tutik first left home, and much has changed in the meantime. Ika, her eldest daughter, is now in high school, and Ira, her youngest is now in 10th grade. The rice fields around her village have been harvested no less than six times.
In the meantime, Tutik says she is often overwhelmed by working conditions in Singapore. “Day follows day” Tutik writes in an SMS. “Month follows month, year follows year. I have now been here for two and a half years. I try to smile and laugh, but really I am crying in my heart. I do not regret what happened. I have to leave behind the ones I love because I know that this life requires sacrifices and struggles.”
“But I can’t live calmly or comfortably here,” she writes in another text. "There are too many problems with the family, and now this has caused problems with my own well-being.”
Week pass, months pass, and then, in early June, Tutik's contract comes to an end. She has spent two and a half years in Singapore. Her final morning is spent busily packing her things, and then she takes a taxi to the airport then boards a plane for Indonesia.
The journey home only takes 6 hours, but to Tutik the crossing must feel much wider.
After a car trip over half-broken roads, meandering through villages and rice paddies, Tutik's house appears on a row of similarly built homes — long buildings with brightly painted verandas. Her family waits for her inside.
At first, the reunion is subdued. Tutik murmurs a few words, embraces her daughters, and then turns away to unpack. The girls bow their heads and continue eating. For some time the only sounds are the men speaking on the front porch, wrapped in the blue smoke of their clove cigarettes.
But soon awkwardness gives way to intimacy. The girls help Tutik unpack, and years of distance seem to fall away. It has been two and half years since she has seen her daughters, and, when she returns to Singapore in two months' time, to work for a new employer, it will be another two years. Ika, who is 18 now, will have graduated from school, and Ira will be in her final year.
Every day, migrants will leave the country; and every day, migrants will come back. In the meantime, Tutik's two months off — two months of Sundays — must be an unimaginable reprieve.
But the more she stays with her daughters, the more she realises their futures depend upon her leaving.
"For farmers, there's no salary," Tutik says. "If we plant our own paddy, we sell a part of it, and save part of it for ourselves to eat until the next year."
"I want my children to become successful people, useful people. I want to give them an education. I know that is going to require millions and millions of Rupiah."
Standing in Singapore's central business district, one is aware of innumerable networks of power and large flows of capital. ANZ is a towering presence in the skyline, and looks out towards HSBC and Chevron House. In all these cases, the buildings were built by low-waged migrants, mostly from India and Bangladesh.
"We built this city," migrants in Singapore sometimes say, and everywhere the proof is tangible: in broad roads, in hospitals and schools, and in the clean, metallic sweep of skyscrapers, which seem like so many rebukes to gravity.
But what about domestic workers? Although their labor is harder to measure, they are equally essential to Singapore's lifeblood, helping run thousands of households across the country. When, if not now, will they be treated properly?
According to social workers, the very least that Singapore needs is a national minimum wage, for citizens and migrant workers alike. They have also argued that migrants should be given the liberty to change their employers without having to change their permits. That entitlement is crucial, as it would give migrant workers the mobility to switch between jobs, protecting them from exploitative bosses or from unsafe working conditions.
This would have the knock-on effect of undermining the apparent impunity of employers and employment agencies, since they would no longer command such a pliable and submissive work-force.
Those conditions, basic expectations in developed countries, are denied to migrant workers who come to Singapore.
As long as government officials see migrant workers as commodities, however, it is difficult to see how those changes will happen. As Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang said as recently as 2010:
"When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights… At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country, we will definitely go for it.”
At the most generous level of interpretation, the remark presumes a ‘trickle-down’ economic vision, in which the “growth of the economy” will ultimately benefit low-waged migrants. But even at its best, Kwang’s assessment is flawed.
If Singapore has the most millionaires in the world per capita, as well as a prosperous middle-class, it also has some of the highest levels of inequality. The country’s Gini coefficient – a ratio which measures income distribution – is 0.414, making it one of the most unequal societies in the OECD.
What needs to change and who will do it? For NGOs in Singapore, it is a matter of reforms both at home and abroad, from practical considerations — such as agencies becoming more transparent by providing domestic workers with an itemised bills of their expenses — to fundamental improvements to legislation affecting migrant workers' rights.
Until these changes occur, women like Tutik will continue to see migration as a matter of chance – or fate.
"Sometimes people have good luck, sometimes they don't. All of that is up to God. All we can do is keep praying diligently; that's what matters."
(Additional reporting by Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata)