The Jakarta Post ran an article today on the plight of Indonesian workers in Taiwan (from here).

Every day a special complaints hotline set up by the Indonesian trade office in Taiwan gets about 300 hits from distressed Indonesian workers.

Around ten per cent concern serious issues, including alleged sexual assaults, physical and emotional abuse, withholding of pay and slashing of wages, bad living conditions and breaches of work contracts.

The issues are so worrying and consistent that a senior Indonesian official has called for the whole Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (TKI – Indonesian overseas labor force) system to be overhauled from the top down.

The claims were made by Ferry Yahya, head of the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei (the capital of Taiwan) at a public event in Taipei this week to raise awareness of Indonesia’s labor contribution to the Taiwan economy.

There are around 105,000 Indonesian workers in the island state, about one third of the total overseas labor force. Most are women domestic workers.

A worker paper by Anne Loveband at the University of Wollongong wrote a working paper entitled Positioning the Product: Indonesian Migrant Women Workers in Contemporary Taiwan, based on her ethnographic work with foreign workers and their employers in Taiwan. She found that worker assignment in Taiwan is driven by essentialist ethnic stereotyping. For example, Thais are considered best for factory work, being hardworking at honest. In the case of Indonesian maids, they are considered loyal and hardworking, but widely “damned for their stupidity,” considered good only for simple repetitive tasks. Thus, they wind up doing work like caring for the sick, extremely demanding physically and emotionally, requiring them to be on call 24-7 in many cases.

Loveband observes that this sector used to be dominated by Filipinas, who are outnumbered about 4 to 1 by the Indonesians at present. As Filipino support organizations such as local NGOs, the Catholic Church, and the Manila Representative Office got more vocal about the treatment of Filipino workers, the ethnic rhetoric shifted and the popularity of Indonesians grew and that of Filipinos waned. Interestingly, the workers themselves seem to accept these stereotypes.

According to the article, the Indonesian representative office here has installed a text messaging system to handle complaints from workers. Interestingly, the office shies away from blaming Taiwan employers for problems. Instead, he argues that workers need to be better prepared with foreign languages, and labor contracts and laws need better enforcement.

Ferry said language differences were at the heart of many disputes. Most Taiwanese speak Mandarin and few among the older generation speak English.

……..

Any Prayogiati, 35, originally from Cilacap (Central Java) said she had been hit in the back by her employer when she couldn’t understand instructions. She has been in Taiwan for 18 months and works in an old people’s home handling incontinent patients.

……..

Any said she was able to attend the event only at the last minute when organizers persuaded her employer that she wouldn’t run away. If she took a day off every week her pay was deducted.

“I wasn’t paid for several months as my salary was used to repay the labor contractor’s fees,” she said.

“There are no Islamic prayer facilities so I have to use a Buddhist shrine and ask God for His forgiveness”.

Her husband Maryoko could not come to Taiwan because he is also a TKI working at a prawn farm in Malaysia.

Loveband did her work in Fengyuan, where she noted the highly visible presence of Indonesian workers openly performing illegal work in restaurants and shops, whereas most of the research has been done on Filipino domestics and has missed this sector. Her point was that the Indonesians are preferred for such tasks, and that many who on the surface are employed caring for sick elders are actually working in family businesses. This misuse of foreign workers is common and winked at by officialdom, as every foreigner here for any length of time has observed. Like most illegal arrangements in Taiwan, it is winked at outside of the capital, but more strictly enforced in Taipei. Loveband argues that Indonesians are preferred for such tasks because females from the Philippines are “arrogant” — meaning that they often have good educations, speak English, have support groups, and have the backing of NGOs and other organizations — and thus Indonesians are more easily exploited.

The interesting thing about Indonesians, despite the cultural stereotype of “loyalty” is that proportionally they were the leading runaways, a problem so acute that in Aug of 2002 the government temporarily banned further import of workers from Indonesia. This led to a turn toward Vietnamese workers. I wonder, also, if the trend toward importing women for foreign marriage is more than just a response to the pickier habits of Taiwan’s choosy femmes, but is also a response to the “unreliability” of imported foreign domestics — what better way to bind a laborer to oneself than to marry her?