“Well, this is the only thing I can do at the moment to survive. I guess, I am a bit over-qualified for a taxi driver,” he said with a bitter laugh. 

Husain is not alone. According to the Manpower Ministry, 6% of this year’s 10.24 million unemployed is made up of university graduates.

In an effort to curb the unemployment rate among university graduates, the department of manpower, according to Widodo Prayinto, will launch a programme in which college graduates will be sent to work in remote areas in an effort to jump start rural economies. “Of course, we will train these graduates first before sending them out,” he said.

The unemployment rate in Indonesia has skyrocketed since the Asian economic crisis in 1997.

Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration Minister, Jacob Nuwawea, says there are now an estimated 38.2 million unemployed people in the country, and if the economy continues to grow at 3.4% there will be 39.3 million unemployed Indonesians in 2004, or an increase of 1.1 million newly unemployed.

“Every year there is an estimated 2.5 million people entering workforce and with that, only 1.4 million new jobs available,” Widodo Prayitno, the director of employment expansion at the ministry said.

With a presidential election just one year away, the numbers do not bode well for the current Megawati government. 

According to the Manpower Minister, the high unemployment rate is one of the main factors casting shadows on the development of Indonesian human resources.

Moreover, according to the Human Development Index 2003 published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Indonesia ranked 112th out of 175 countries studied. This is above Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Papua New Guinea but below all other countries in Asia.

Indonesian migrant workers

In a quest for a better life, millions of unemployed Indonesians have sought work abroad, with Indonesian males generally finding employment in the construction and agriculture sectors while Indonesian female workers generally find employment as domestic servants. 

“Working abroad has been seen as an easy way out,” Wahyu Susilo, the director of the consortium for Indonesian Migrant Workers Advocacy said.

“I don’t mind resigning from my post, but it will not solve the problem”

Jacob Nuwa Wea,
Minister of Manpower

For many of the unskilled Indonesian labourers, a salary in foreign currencies equals an improved standard of living and a higher social status.

“One of my neighbours returned from working abroad with enough money to renovate her house and buy a new motorcycle,” Nurjanah, a female migrant worker from West Java explains.

For Nurjanah, this was motivation enough for her to seek employment abroad. Two years later, she has returned to Indonesia, but without a new motorcycle and no new house.  Just a body full of bruises and traumas after being raped by her employer in Malaysia. 

Reports of mistreatment received by Indonesian migrant workers abroad have seen intense coverage by the local media in recent weeks, prompting emotional reactions from Indonesians and a demand for the Minister of Manpower to resign. 

“I don’t mind resigning from my post,” said the Minister of Manpower, Jacob Nuwa Wea, responding to the request.  “But it will not solve the problem.”

What the minister offers to solve the problem is “to issue a joint decree, form an advocacy agency, design a special passport for workers and to provide legal protection for them during their employment overseas,” he said.

Activists slammed the idea saying that it is not enough to protect the migrant workers.

According to Wahyu Susilo from the Consortium for Migrant Workers Advocacy Group, one of the most important things that needs to be done by the government is to make bilateral agreements with the receiving countries. 

“Our government admits to sending workers to at least 20 countries but we have no bilateral agreements with any of them,” said Susilo.

Indonesia’s former president, Abd al-Rahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid also voiced his concerns over the matter. 

“This is a very complex problem,” he said.

“But with no bilateral agreements, there is nothing we can do to protect our workers,” he continued, referring to the incident in September 2002 where more than 22,000 Indonesian migrant workers were stranded in an island off Kalimantan after being expelled from Malaysia.

Hundreds of these workers ended up dying due to lack of basic necessities in the island.

A nation of coolies

“There lies between the continents of Asia and Australia, a coolie between nations.” 

That is how Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno passionately described Indonesia during the colonial times. “Thank God, we realised it, before it was too late,” he said in a speech nearly 40 years ago. 

Today, with migrant workers being one of the biggest income sources for the country, Indonesia has once again become the nation of coolies.

Adi Sasono, a leader of the Association of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals, said, “Who are we if all we can export abroad is unskilled workers?” he said. “It means we are really a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations.”