By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

A month ago, on March 18, Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded Muhammad Zaini Misrin, a 53-year-old Indonesian driver despite pleas for clemency by President Joko Widodo. Zaini, who allegedly killed his employer in 2004, went to his death insisting he was not guilty.

Migrant Care, an Indonesian organization focusing on the welfare of Indonesian migrant workers, said Zaini wasn’t represented by a lawyer and was only accompanied in the interrogation by a translator who was believed to have led him into confessing to the crime. He later recanted, saying the confession had been coerced. The Saudi government didn’t inform Indonesia when the execution was taking place.

While Zaini’s case is extreme, Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia face a country where constitutional protections are few and laws are arcane and there is often little or no protection from Indonesian consuls or other authorities because of an ill-considered ban on working there that impels migrants to go under the radar. There are another 19 Indonesians facing the death penalty on various allegations, including five charged with witchcraft. Usually the witchcraft charges arise from cultural misunderstandings when Indonesians display amulets or other talismans, or they get into labor disputes with employers who use a witchcraft charge in revenge.

The government, according to UCA News, a Catholic Church newsletter, has saved the lives of 79 other Indonesians since 2011 although none involved murder charges. President Joko Widodo has asked for clemency on three occasions, including in Zaini’s case. Zaini’s execution is an indication that the Indonesian government must make additional efforts to protect its overseas workers, who number 6.5 million and remitted US$9 billion back home in 2016 — 16 percent of the country’s total foreign reserves.  

In 2015, Jakarta placed the moratorium on sending new domestic workers to 21 Middle Eastern countries after the Saudis executed two Indonesian women. The flow of migrants to the Middle East hasn’t stopped, however. While the numbers have dropped off considerably, migrants – often using Ramadan and the hajj or the umrah, the annual religious pilgrimages, as cover to leave Indonesia – continue to head for lucrative jobs overseas.  Most go to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait.

The National Agency for the Protection and Placement of Migrant Workers is the agency that seeks to stop the flow of workers, but it appears to be ineffective. Because they are defying the government’s ban, worker protections are inoperative.

Thus the ban not only means overseas worker have no access to legal protection, it violates the right of mobility to work in other countries. It’s clear that the ban needs to be dropped.

In addition, migrant worker protection organizations have complained that 2017 legislation passed by Indonesia’s House of Representatives is inadequate, lacking a focus on their rights to legal protection. While the country signed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families in 2012, the case of Zaini and two other workers in imminent danger of execution in Saudi Arabia is an indication that more is needed.

In any case, what laws there are haven’t been fully and properly converted into practice. As the with Zaini case and the pending executions, and widespread abuse of workers, with many women being molested, it is clear that unfair treatment of workers is still rampant.

This needs to be a shared learning experience for the Indonesian government and other relevant stakeholders to prevent similar cases from happening again, migrant worker protection organizations say. Workers have their own reasons to work abroad, and the strongest driving force is the higher income received compared to working at home. More attention is needed to meet the requirements as stated by the law.

Effort is also required to make sure that workers who are about to go abroad receive sufficient training and knowledge on matters related not only to the conditions in the destination country   but about their legal rights in the destination countries.

Although these efforts have been carried out, they have not been effective, which, as the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers claims, has led to the increasing number of illegal workers.

Indeed, the issue of illegal workers needs special attention. The government has a duty to suppress the number of overseas workers who are not in accordance with the procedures as defined in the law, particularly as the number of illegal workers flowing overseas continues to be high.

What needs to happen is that the ban on overseas workers, which simply isn’t working, should be removed so that their condition can be monitored and so that the government can formulate effective strategies to protect them. 

Muhammad Zulifikar Rakhmat is a frequent contributor on Indonesian social issues