June 26, 2012
The two young women aboard the Gaya Baru night train seemed small compared to their luggage – four bulging suitcases and myriad small bags. As the train pulled out of Yogyakarta, they had already been aboard ten hours, after flying in to Jakarta the night before.
They were headed for Paron, a small village in Madiun, East Java, on leave from their jobs as domestic workers in Hong Kong, where each earns about $350 a month. It's a journey they have been making since 2008.
Widarti, 26, has two children – Najwa, 6, and Dafa, 4 – but no husband. He left her two years ago and married another woman.
"Both of my children are being raised by my parents," she said, bitterness in her voice.
It was a hard choice to leave her children in order to earn the money to give them a better life. In Indonesia, the regional minimum salary is less than Rp one million a month (about $100). As a factory worker, she would make $110 a month, with a long commute to a plant about 150km from her home. Work as a servant in Indonesia would net less than $70 a month.
"I can do nothing with that sum of money," she said.
Now, she sends about $150 a month to her mother, and is saving part of her salary in hopes of opening a small business someday in her village. She once tried opening a food stall there, but the spending power of fellow villagers was just too small. They preferred to eat at home.
Her travelling companion, Mahmudah, 22, is the eldest of three children of a farmer and a vegetable vendor. She is her family's backbone. Her younger brother and sister need money for school, meals and clothes. Her goal is to fund them until they finish their studies.
Their stories are similar to those of thousands of migrant workers from East Java. Most return to their villages at least once a year, generally during Idul Fitri, a holiday to make the end the Islamic month of Ramadan. They come laden with gifts, to prove to their neighbors and families that they have been successful working abroad.
East Java is one of the largest suppliers of Indonesian female migrant workers, notes Magdalena Hariyati, director of the Karena Kasih Foundation in Madiun. She emphasises the contribution they make to Indonesia's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
"Even the World Bank noted that migrant workers bring the second highest income after oil and gas, which I believe is 30% of our GDP," Magdalena told Khabar.
"Many Indonesian migrant workers from East Java are working in various countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. However, many of their families are also suffering," she continued.
Confirming the story from Widarti, Magdalena stated a migrant worker typically leaves her children with her husband or parents. However, their absence often impacts the child's education, morals, and behaviour.
"I've seen many children in East Java fail in their education, starting to drink and smoke at very early ages. However, many have also been successful, especially those who live in pesantren or madrassas."
Magdalena noted the positive contribution of women migrant workers, many of whom help their communities.
Hartoyo Wijayanto, the leader of a small madrassa in Karangrejo, Madiun, said women migrant workers have supported his Islamic school.
"In our madrassa, for almost every Idul Adha (Muslim holiday), we receive some money from them. They are also contributing to building a mosque here. Even though the mosque is not yet finished, their constant contributions will help this project be completed someday," he told Khabar.
Hartoyo added that these woman migrant workers are good Muslims and good residents. He frequently hears of the difficulties they experience overseas, as they work to support their families and villages at home.
"They are our heroes," he said.