The return of the Indonesian female migrant workers: Wasted talent


Returned migrant workers have much to offer, but have trouble achieving recognition for the skills they’ve developed abroad

Ellen Prusinski

In 2006, Dewi decided to follow in the steps of her older sister, who had spent two years working in Taiwan. After registering with a migrant worker recruitment agency in Semarang, Dewi waited on the agency grounds for nearly three months before she was matched with an employer in Taipei. In the meantime, she followed a highly regimented training schedule. Every morning and evening, Dewi studied Mandarin with one hundred of her classmates. In the afternoon, she practised cooking and cleaning tasks because the agency told her she would be working as a housekeeper in Taiwan.

When she arrived in Taiwan, Dewi found that she was not to be a housekeeper, or even a run-of-the-mill nanny. Instead, she was assigned to care for Ming, a young boy with significant developmental disabilities. Unable to hear, speak, or walk, Ming’s skin was ghostly pale from years spent isolated indoors. At first, Dewi was overwhelmed both by Ming’s need for round-the-clock care and by her own lack of knowledge about how to help him. The small amount of Mandarin she had learned at the recruitment agency had very little in common with the language she heard around her in Taiwan. Ming’s parents did not allow her any days off and the only break Dewi got was when she accompanied Ming to his special needs school. She had not yet finished paying off the recruitment agency fees, though, and she knew she had to stay until she at least broke even.

The longer Dewi stayed, the more attached she grew to Ming and the more she learned about how to care for him. Soon, Dewi had mastered sign language, established routines with Ming, and found ways to play with him and entice him outside. After six years working with Ming, Dewi finally decided to go home to Indonesia. She wanted to use what she had learned to help Indonesian children with special needs, but school after school told her that they couldn’t hire her because she hadn’t completed any recognised training. Her experiences in Taiwan counted for nothing, not least because records from the recruitment agency showed only that she had been employed as a domestic worker. Although Dewi had valuable skills and experience that could help improve the lives of Indonesian children with special needs, her lack of credentials meant that she could never use her hard-earned skills.

Poorly equipped
Dewi’s story is unique. But it also resonates with the stories of many of the thousands of Indonesian migrant women workers who travel abroad each year. Since 2004, the Indonesian government has required all migrant domestic workers to participate in ‘skills training’ before they leave to work abroad. According to Indonesian law, this training must help prepare women for their intended work abroad and include, among other things, information about customs, traditions and religious beliefs in the destination country, as well discussion of the risks of working abroad. But, like Dewi, most women leave poorly prepared.

Training is typically offered by the for-profit recruitment agencies that place migrant women workers in positions abroad. Because it is not consistently regulated, the quality of this training is often woeful, focusing more on developing discipline than on language skills or knowledge of the destination country. Such gaps are unfortunate. Recognising that providing care to someone who speaks a different language and has different cultural and religious beliefs is challenging, many migrant women workers have a strong desire to develop their language and caregiving skills. As such, the provision of poor training represents a missed opportunity to provide women with an educational experience that many want but may not otherwise be able to access.

In addition, like Dewi, many migrant women workers train for jobs that are different from the jobs they are actually assigned. It is not uncommon for recruitment agencies to mislead women about the work they will be performing abroad. As a result, women may spend months training for one job only to find that they have in fact been hired to do something else. This is very frustrating for women who have invested months in training and want to do their jobs well. Also, and despite contracts promising otherwise, women are often required to undertake multiple types of work, a practice that means that women waste valuable time training for jobs they will never perform and at the same time are ill-equipped for the work they must do.

Double whammy
Having battled to establish themselves, women like Dewi develop sometimes remarkable skill-sets while working overseas. But these skills often go unacknowledged and unappreciated upon their return. Of course, some women receive training or education while abroad that allows them to begin a new career or business upon returning to Indonesia. But because the skills most women develop overseas are not acknowledged as valuable, many women find themselves post-migration in the exact same position they were before they left.

Part of the problem is the fact that, because recruitment agencies are known to engage in shady practices, the credentials they offer are not taken seriously. But there is also another important factor. The skills migrant workers inevitably learn abroad are not neutral. Instead they carry with them the stigma of where and how they were learned. It is important to consider the implications of failing to provide high-quality, relevant training for migrant women workers and to recognise the skills they acquire on the job. It suggests these women are not considered worthy of educational investment and nor are their skills are considered worth developing.

Many women see migration as an opportunity to develop new skills that they hope will be useful not only while abroad but also when they return. The failure to foster and acknowledge skills development among migrant women workers when so many travel overseas for work is a serious failing on the part of the Indonesian state.

Time for change
Why do the skills and knowledge women develop while working in the domestic sphere remain unacknowledged? Why not support the ability of women who already have valuable language, caregiving and cross-cultural communication skills to put these skills to use? And why not help them further develop these skills through high-quality training opportunities? One potential solution is to improve the quality of the skills training that women receive from recruitment agencies through, among other measures, more effective government regulation of those recruitment agencies. But it’s debatable whether recruitment agencies are the best providers of this education in the first place.

Instead of turning over control for training to recruitment agencies, the government might instead consider providing this training itself. Alternatively, it might consider partnering with universities or technical training centres that could offer women a certificate or license that women could use both for migration purposes and as proof of language and specialised skills upon their return. A system in which women earned credits for their training could be developed so as to allow women interested in pursuing further education a basis on which to build. A revamp of the training system should also take into account the skills that women develop while abroad. Instead of requiring women to participate in repeat training when they begin a new contract to the same country, a skills test or short refresher course could be offered instead. There could also be a system for testing and certifying return migrants’ competencies.

Enhancing skills training and increasing recognition of women’s skills in this way would not only help women achieve their goals for finding meaningful work upon their return to Indonesia. It would also help Indonesia achieve its goal of developing human resources through education and training. The question is, therefore, not why or how to reward and recognise returned migrant women workers’ skills – but rather why it hasn’t already been done.

Ellen Prusinski ( is a PhD candidate in Education Policy at Indiana University.

Inside Indonesia 116: Apr-Jun 2014

A scene of Indonesian movie on the life of Indonesian female migrant workers in Hong Kong, "Minggu Pagi di Victoria Park" (Sunday Morning in Victoria Park) directed by Lola Amaria.

A scene of Indonesian movie on the life of Indonesian female migrant workers in Hong Kong, “Minggu Pagi di Victoria Park” (Sunday Morning in Victoria Park) directed by Lola Amaria.


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