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Indonesia to Stop Sending Informal Migrant Workers Abroad

FILE - A migrant worker heading for Middle East countries holds her passport documents at an immigration office in Tangerang, Indonesia's Banten province, in June 2011.

The Indonesian government says it plans to stop sending maids and migrant workers overseas by 2017 in an effort to decrease violence and discrimination against them.

In announcing the initiative Wednesday in Jakarta, Labor Minister Hanif Dhakiri said the process of stopping informal migrant workers from going abroad would be handled in stages.

“In the short term, we have to make preparations for handling those who have worked overseas," Dhakiri said. "Second, we also have to evaluate the countries where they were placed."

He admitted restricting migrant workers from seeking employment overseas would increase unemployment. But he said the government was already preparing a strategy to create more jobs for Indonesians.

The move followed comments this month by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who said it was a matter of dignity to protect the country's workers.

“They have long taken advantage of the exploitation of our migrant female domestic workers," Widodo said of overseas employers.

But Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care, a workers rights group, said the new plan was not a solution because of its inherent discrimination against migrant workers. She said she was confident that violent or abusive treatment by employers could be prevented with strict supervision and research done before workers go abroad.

“What should be determined is the nation must be assured that every citizen has decent work but not ban a specific sector," Hidayah said. "If the reason is the many emerging problems, solutions must be found to the problems but not to stop placement of informal migrant workers.”

The International Labor Organization said domestic workers overseas are disproportionately exposed to exploitation, forced labor and human trafficking.

Rather than restrict worker rights, Hidayah said, the Indonesian government should ratify ILO Convention No. 189. It provides for protection of rights, promotion of equality of opportunity and treatment, and improvement in working and living conditions for migrant workers.

Hidayah also urged Jokowi to enact a law ensuring equal rights for maids as professional workers.

Approximately 700,000 documented Indonesian workers leave their country each year in search of employment opportunities abroad. Some have become the subject of high-profile abuse cases, such as an Indonesian maid that was severely beaten by her Hong Kong employer last year. The employer was recently convicted of abuse.

According to the ILO, there are 4.3 million documented Indonesian migrant workers currently overseas. The number of undocumented workers is estimated to be much higher.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Indonesian service.