22 March 2007

Why migrant workers remain poor back home?

Savitri Wisnuwardhani

My motivation to work abroad is to have money for buying a big house, land and improving my life. If I do not go, I can’t fulfill my dream. It’s hard to suffice my daily life’s needs.

An interview with an Indonesian migrant worker

POOR people in rural areas have been worse hit by the economic difficulties in third world counties like Indonesia. A case study conducted in migrant workers sending districts in the country features how the villages endure similar problems of poverty. Working overseas is among the solutions taken by poor villagers as almost all Indonesian women going to work overseas admit that their motivation is to improve their difficult life. They got a lot of earnings. But, how do they spend them? Why are they still poor and then go again to work overseas?

Many opinions say about the reasons why people work overseas. Poverty is one of the undeniable reasons. Difficulties to find a work at home countries push them to work overseas. But after returning to Indonesia, why are they still poor though they sent back quite sum of money? The Jember district branch of the Indonesian central bank recently informs that in the first semester of 2006 as many as Rp162 billions (over $US 17.6 millions) have been sent back as the remittance of the migrant workers originating from Jember district. About Rp27 billions a month is supposedly running into the villages in Jember.

Click the image to see it bigger.

The result of our research in 2005 on 92 Indonesian migrants working in Singapore may explain better the picture, saying that motivation of most migrant workers is to get money to buy land (13.7%) and to renovate their houses (19.5%) and for diverse home equipments mostly furniture and electronic products (10%). This tendency takes place because they admittedly want to pursue prestige and perceived success as they live in their villages with having a plot of land to build a good looking houses.

Case study that we conduct in a Jember village shows life’s success in the village is socially measured with having big and decent house. This is among what most migrant workers say when asked why they want to work overseas. No wonder that after returning to their village, they build houses that look like those in real estate. But most of their big, good-looking houses as you may see them from outside do not match with the inside condition. You would only find their genuine identity when you enter to their kitchen and bathroom as compared to their living rooms and the front face of their houses. You would see nearly a stark difference like luxury and simplicity.

This contrast likely shows that they are not well prepared to accept rapid social and economic changes, because they are nearly set up to imitate social trends of life style in big cities. There seems to be a cultural dominance that most people in the village unconsciously follow. Such cultural dominance has far affected their livelihood. Their earnings that they got from at least two-year working overseas would finish only in six months after living back in their origin country. Afterwards they would be back again into their usual condition of poverty.

Regarding rural life style, let’s say, most people in the village would like to behave as if people living in big cities. And they find urban style as if a ‘must-to-do’, something clearly incongruent to their surrounding but they are ready to pay it with high price. Such life style is indeed comparatively very costly that makes them quickly running out of money and understandably they would go working overseas again as unskilled migrant workers.

In this regard it is difficult not to say that in the present social context the TV programs like popular telenovelas have much affected their daily life. Most of the programs tantalize them with luxury and dreams of becoming rich people. Even people in remote areas in Jember district now would already have TV set in their home. Such a dream has unconsciously transformed into what they find it as their needs. You would find it then very contrasting with the actual simplicity of living in rural areas in Indonesia.

Social behavior that prefers of making nice impression than realistic attitude is apparently consequences of the inadequate education and trainings. They lack of proper information and skills on how to use their money to improve their livelihood.

In such a situation there appear overseas work placement sponsors who entice them to easily get a lot of money if they work like in Middle Eastern countries, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. That kind of easy money is almost straightforwardly associated with what they have seen the like in the telenovelas. Sponsors almost always allure them with sweet promises of quick money disregarding social, cultural condition of their working places in other countries. As a result, they decided to go overseas without any further reasonable considerations such as improving skills and self-confidence in advance.

May be you ask when they could really improve their life and stop being poor? To my opinion, they will only succeed overcoming poverty if they spend their earnings more on small businesses, the benefit of which would directly support their livelihood. In fact there are only as low as five percents of migrant workers who spend their earnings for microfinance activities. As many as 43.2 percents of them, instead, spend their earnings for building comparatively expensive houses and equipments. If they were more interested in spending their money for their economic undertaking, their lives would predictably be better, having more balance with their social environment.**


johnorford said...

Although well-meaning, this is on the whole a condescending article.

I say it again and again, poor people aren't stupid, and they do what they do for good reason.

savitri said...

Dear John, thank for your comment. I appreciate that. Firstly, I would say, I never mention in my article that migrant workers are stupid. Apart from that, this is still an on going research. In my article I have not elaborated how they lack of education. The pie diagram shows a large portion of their work result (remittance) is for land-and-house-related expense, but in between their most important necessity they secure the fulfillment of education. Therefore they do care about education. But generally this is for their children not for themselves. In fact there has not been any adequate education or skill improvement training for them, an effort that the government should have already done. In Jember, for example, the government has not determined any education policy specifically for them. Behind all of this you may guess what is happening, particularly between those officials and the business sector (agencies), i.e. corruption, discrimination, human exploitation and trafficking.

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