The Migrant Workers’ Union as a ‘Political School’ for Women (End)

Kabar Bumi in the ‘Feminist Carnaval’ in Bali (10/14). Photo: Kabar Bumi.
Kabar Bumi in the ‘Feminist Carnaval’ in Bali (10/14). Photo: Kabar Bumi.

Organizing the Family of Migrant Workers

The experience and self-confidence trained in the union in Hong Kong become more crucial when the migrants return to their families. By going through the momentum of growing political consciousness regarding their experience as migrant workers, these women learn about the importance of establishing an organization in their home province. In addition, they also attempt to connect between organizing migrants in the sending and receiving countries.

The living experience as a migrant worker, as explained above, has a relation with their situation in the homeland of the migrants. First, the presence of migrant workers is strongly related to the impoverishment of their home provinces. Secondly, cases regarding migrant workers such as overcharging tend to be accompanied by the practice of retaining the migrants’ personal documents and intimidation towards the migrant’s family by the agent.

One of the migrant workers’ organization in Indonesia, the Kabar Bumi, was established within the above context. Kabar Bumi has gone through a long process as a result of the organizing experiences in Hong Kong. Within the experience they had, the women migrant workers learnt invaluable lessons in terms of political education and case handling.

ATKI Indonesia was the organization before it transformed to Kabar Bumi in 2015. ATKI Indonesia was an organization within the same network of ATKI Hong Kong, ATKI Taiwan and ATKI Macau. In the period of 2007-2015, ATKI Indonesia, according to Karsiwen, was only focusing on the case handling and providing information regarding the migrants. “ATKI was not focusing on organizing the migrants and their family in the regions.”

Within the same period of years, these activists who then established the union had gone through a number of political education. “At our time in Hong Kong, we got a book that explained the relationship between the fertilizer price and the reason why we become migrant workers,” said Karsiwen. This particular book also triggered the rise of political consciousness that the problems faced by the migrants do not first emerge in the receiving country but is rooted in the problem of poverty in the sending country.

“Prior to Kabar Bumi, we only focused on the cases, but what is the actual root of the problem? We handled numerous cases, but nothing really changed,” said Karsiwen.

The women migrant workers also had their political consciousness raised when they started to become more engaged with the overcharging case advocacy. In 2006, ATKI Hong Kong conducted a survey to document the victims of overcharging. By conducting the survey, the migrants gained knowledge about the state policy underlying the placement fee. “Because we conducted the survey, we were ‘forced’ to learn and read more,” added Karsiwen.

Furthermore, an interaction between the migrants and other sectors of working people, especially with the peasants who experience land dispossession, also contributes to further developing the political consciousness. At their first formation, ATKI Indonesia had already become part of a multi-sectoral alliance, the People’s Struggle Front (FPR). Within the alliance, the women activists were able to relate their own experience with the impoverishment of the peasants in their home province.

One of the momentum that linked the migrant workers with the land issue was the land grabbing cases in 2007-2015. This momentum raised the consciousness as the dispossession was experienced directly by the family of migrant workers members of ATKI Indonesia. “The case was being taken care of by Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria (AGRA), the peasants’ union. Many of ATKI Indonesia then became members of AGRA.”

Meanwhile, in terms of case handling, it requires a lot of human resources to handle cases, such as meeting and counselling the family victims, collecting necessary documents for case reporting and lawyer or paralegals for the tribunal. “Cases regarding the migrant workers usually involve criminal law, such as document retaining by the agent. We need lots of organizers who understand the law and procedures,” said Eni Lestari.[i]

These needs emerged, particularly in Erwiana’s case. In the first years of case handling between 2013-2014, lots of resources were needed in Indonesia, such as accompanying Erwiana during her treatment in the hospital, making a case chronology and collecting necessary documents. “Before Erwiana, normally a case could be handled by one or two visits. In Erwiana’s case, I had to spend at least a month writing her chronology,” said Karsiwen.

The learning process the women have gone through serve as a foundation in establishing the Kabar Bumi. The name ‘Kabar Bumi’ was chosen to accommodate returned migrants, who were members of different organizations in Hong Kong other than ATKI, such as League of Indonesian Migrant Workers (LIPMI) or Indonesia Migrant Workers Union (IMWU). Another crucial thing behind the name is, Kabar Bumi makes the expansion of the organization coverage possible by accepting potential/ returned migrant workers along with their families as part of the membership.

In terms of running the organization, Kabar Bumi adapts a concept of multi-sectoral organizing. With their political education, the organizer of Kabar Bumi was aware of the intersection between the divisions of the working people, particularly regarding the self of migrant workers. According to Karsiwen, the majority of migrant workers originally come from peasant families. As they return to Indonesia, the migrant workers face again the land issues given their family background.

One of the Kabar Bumi members in Ponorogo of East Java, for example, their routine is discussing the land-related matters such as Farmer’s Card program (a provision for the farmer) and Social Forestry of a state policy. The discussions on the land issue were easily accommodated as the union adopted the concept of multi-sectoral organizing. “Our members need an education about the land. We attempt to accommodate our members’ needs, not only take care of cases happening in Hong Kong,” added Karsiwen.

Kabar Bumi uses creative ways to organize. Their routine activity is a monthly discussion which is presented in the form of ‘Arisan’.[ii] This meeting usually talks about cases, policy advocacy and any of their members’ needs—including the needs to understanding the land issue. Interestingly, the ‘Arisan’ is not only applied as an opportunity to gather their members, but they also hold ‘Arisan’ to help organize their husbands.

The importance in involving the families of the migrant workers, especially their husbands, are fully recognized by Kabar Bumi. Based on Karsiwen’s experience in engaging with the movement, the women migrant workers will face a challenge of domestication as the return to their home province. Women involved in the union have a limited space as they have to take care of the domestic work as well.

“That challenge has made us aware about the importance of organizing our husbands, by giving them an understanding, recruiting and involving them in the union activities,” said Karsiwen.

Aware with this challenge, ‘Arisan’ then takes place in different households one at a time. Every member will have a turn to host ‘Arisan’. This effort is done in order to expose the union activity to the husbands: that their wives are doing positive things. One of the results is quite interesting: not only do the husbands start to support the union, but they also take care of the children when their wives are in a meeting.


Some Learning Points

As the women migrant workers are being trained in  ‘Political Schools’, they are able to go through a number of transformations. For the first time, women gain awareness of the exploitation that occurs to them as migrant workers. When women start to join the union, the opportunity for them to learn and enhance their political capacity is increasing. The women are also able to raise their consciousness as a part of the working class.

The open spaces to organize in Hong Kong for the migrants has become a crucial factor that makes the organizing effort become possible. Female migrant workers are also able to be more open-minded as they are being exposed to the new culture—a culture that gives them an idea of how to deconstruct the position of women in a patriarchal society. The experience they have by joining an organization in Hong Kong helps women to develop and express themselves in the public.

The result of all this becomes important when the migrants return to their home province. The female migrant workers become aware that the situation they are facing is not separate from the impoverishment that gives birth to the ‘migrants’ itself. These women return to Indonesia with new knowledge and develop an organization that can cover potential/ returned migrant workers along with their families and make a close cooperation with other sectors of working people.

Editor: Patrick Jason


[i] Informal discussion with Eni Lestari, October 20, 2018.

[ii] Arisan is an Indonesian traditional gathering in a scope of neighbourhood community, usually holds once in a month.


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