Medan, Indonesia – When Indonesian migrant labourer Figo Paroji worked on a construction site in Malaysia, the end of the year would always bring a sense of trepidation.
“I would campaign every year. I wanted to raise awareness amongst migrant workers coming from Indonesia illegally by boat and warn them not to make the crossing in November or December,” Paroji, who worked in the western state of Selangor from 2006 to 2019, told Al Jazeera. “At the end of the year the waves were always huge and it was so risky.”
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Paroji has left Malaysia and is now a coordinator at the Indonesia Migrant Workers’ Union, but the waves of Indonesian workers making the treacherous voyage keep coming.
On December 15, a boat carrying some 50 migrant workers from Indonesia capsized off the coast of Johor state in Malaysia in inclement weather.
Fourteen survivors were found on Tanjung Balau Beach – along with the wreckage of the boat – and 18 bodies were recovered, according to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. At least 20 people are still missing, presumed dead.
Paroji, who was undocumented for three of the 13 years he worked in Malaysia, said workers continue to risk their lives travelling to Indonesia on small and unsafe boats out of desperation.
“The main reason people are reckless enough to make the journey is because of economic factors,” he said. “There just aren’t the same number of job opportunities in Indonesia as there are in Malaysia.”
Indonesia’s unemployment rate in August stood at 6.49 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Indonesia’s poverty rate stood at 10.4 percent as of March 2021, up from 9.2 percent in September 2019, according to World Bank data.
There are an estimated 2.7 million Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia, although firm figures are difficult to come by as only about one-third of workers are believed to be documented, according to Indonesia’s Ambassador to Malaysia Hermono, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. The migrants take up jobs ranging from domestic helpers to construction and plantation workers.
“Lots of small businesses will take anyone,” Paroji said. “They don’t have permission to employ foreign workers but they don’t care as long as the labour is cheap.”
Reports of physical and psychological abuse are common as migrant workers often lack access to labour unions or the protections of legal and regulated employment.
In November 2020, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on Malaysian authorities to monitor employers and protect Indonesian migrant workers, following an outcry over a case in which an Indonesian domestic worker was tortured, scalded with hot water and starved.
Such stories of abuse resonate with Anita, a 42-year-old domestic helper who moved to Malaysia in 2018 after she got what she thought was a lucky break.
After struggling to find work in her home province of North Sumatra, Anita was introduced to an employment agent through a mutual friend who promised her work as a domestic helper in Kuala Lumpur.
Once Anita arrived, her lucky break quickly became a nightmare.
“My employers immediately seized my passport and my bank book,” Anita, who asked not to use her real name, told Al Jazeera. “They told me that, as they were paying for my board and lodging, I wouldn’t need any money of my own. They said that they would transfer my monthly salary to my agent and they would keep it for me until the end of my contract.”
This was only the beginning of her problems.
Anita said she was forced to work from 4am to 11pm each day and barely given enough to eat. Breakfast was dry bread without butter or jam, while lunch and dinner usually consisted of rice gruel and chicken bones with little meat on them.
“I was made to clean the house with bleach without being given any protective equipment like gloves,” she said, adding that the skin on her hands regularly peeled off, leaving her in agony.
After 11 months of mistreatment, Anita begged to be allowed to return home. Although her employer relented, she was only provided with an air ticket home and one month’s salary of $237 (RM 1,000) in cash.
It wasn’t until she found a lawyer in North Sumatra who agreed to represent her pro bono that she was able to reach a settlement with the employment agency that granted her the rest of the money she was owed.
No other choice
Around the same time as Antia’s ordeal, the death of Adelina Sau, a domestic worker from Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara Province, caused public uproar after it emerged she had been beaten by her employer and made to sleep outside next to the family’s dog.
Sau’s employer was charged with her murder but acquitted by Penang High Court, a verdict that was later upheld by an appeals court. An appeal against that decision by the attorney general is ongoing at the Federal Court of Malaysia.
Gabriel Goa, chair of the Legal Insitute for Justice and Peace, told Al Jazeera that migrant rights activists had been campaigning for justice in the case in front of the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta in recent weeks.
“Trafficking workers by sea from Indonesia to Malaysia continues without any firm action from both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments,” Goa said, adding that he believed authorities turned a blind eye in part due to bribery by smuggling networks.
“Sadly, tragic events such as the latest boat sinking that lead to the death of trafficking victims do not create any kind of deterrent for traffickers.”
As well as tougher penalties for traffickers, former migrant worker Paroji said there needs to be a greater understanding of why workers risk everything to reach Malaysian shores.
“In my experience, people keep using these perilous sea routes because there isn’t any other choice and they can’t enter Malaysia legally,” Paroji said. “Many of them have already been blacklisted, having been caught working illegally in Malaysia in the past, so they are forced to use these kinds of back channels or enter using a tourist visa.”
“Why does it keep happening? Malaysia has the work opportunities,” he added. “The people making the crossings know that what they are doing is wrong, but they feel like they lack any other choice.”