The human struggle for prosperity is universal, but the details differ dramatically between people and countries. Some live where the freedom to pursue prosperity is guaranteed as a basic individual right, and these people are fortunate to pursue their prosperity and happiness with access to robust markets and fewer government-erected barriers. There are others, however, who live in countries ruled by regimes that have distorted their lives with arbitrary dictates and impeded their ability to trade. These people are impoverished by intrusive state intervention, failed central planning, and a lack of commerce.
The people of Indonesia largely fall into this latter category. Government policy there has choked off economic growth, and employment prospects are scarce. As a result, Indonesians choose to pursue their own paths to prosperity. Every year, around 400,000 people with low skill levels and little education leave their villages to join the millions of Indonesians who have emigrated to Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and countries in the Middle East to find jobs. They either work as maids, drivers, and nannies, or in factories and other professions abroad.
The impact of this labor outflow is remarkable. A policy paper by the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) published in June 2015 found that annual remittances of migrant workers to their homes in Indonesia reached USD $8 billion in 2014. These funds mostly benefit low-income households in remote areas, supporting market access and equality of opportunity for marginalized communities by providing funds for the education of local children, the start-up of local businesses, the purchase of technology that spurs productivity gains, and the building of local infrastructure projects. Most migrants are women, so remittances also reduce a traditional gender bias by giving women property and financial independence. The World Bank has reported that remittances by migrant workers reduced the Indonesian poverty rate by 26.7 percent from 2000 to 2007.
When an Indonesian maid was executed by Saudi Arabian authorities in 2011, however, the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower restricted the ability of Indonesian household helpers to work in Saudi Arabia and five other neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia executed two more Indonesian maids in April 2015, and the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower has followed its previous restriction with a moratorium that legally bans Indonesians from seeking employment in Saudi Arabia and 20 other countries in the Middle East.
This new moratorium is aligned with plans by Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, to halt the migration of Indonesian workers entirely. After a state visit to Malaysia in February, Widodo stated that he had felt ashamed when discussing matters of Indonesian migrant workers during bilateral talks with Malaysia. Doing menial chores abroad undermines Indonesian pride and dignity, he alleged. Widodo, who was elected president in 2014, has been called “A New Hope” for Indonesia by Time magazine, but he fails to understand that the freedom to migrate is an inseparable part of an individual’s right to pursue prosperity.
Attempts to ban workers from migrating to the Middle East will have a significant effect on the already-struggling Indonesian economy. Remittances reached USD $3 billion in 2014 from workers in the Middle East alone. Stopping the flow of these funds would slash the inclusive growth and prosperity of many villages and remote areas.
People migrate to other countries not only because of their eagerness to gain prosperity, but also because they care for their family’s welfare and their children’s future. They don’t have many choices or job opportunities at home because of their low education levels and the failing economy. With the support of their families at home, though, they have the courage to cross borders and to work for foreign employers in strange cultures with different languages. This only happens because of the basic instinct to purse prosperity that all human beings possess, and the government ought not prohibit voluntary human action in the pursuit of prosperity.
If government officials seek to protect migrant workers abroad, they should instead reduce bureaucratic hurdles and strengthen the reliability of Indonesian embassies in destination countries. CIPS policy recommendations suggest reducing the number of procedural steps in the application process and shortening mandatory training programs. CIPS found that long procedures do not protect workers or employers, they only give third parties — agencies and brokers — undue power over migrant workers.
Embassies should be the first line of protection for migrant workers when they arrive in their destination countries, and embassy officials should be easy to reach when workers need help. There are still overlapping responsibilities between the respective embassies under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Authority for the Protection and Placement of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI) regarding the protection of migrant workers, so there have been several cases in which embassies merely delegated a problem to BNP2TKI, rather than solving it directly. Streamlining their duties would provide migrant workers with accessible diplomats who follow clear procedures.
If government officials really want to help migrant workers, or Indonesian people in general, they should encourage people to pursue their prosperity by allowing for economic freedom in a market economy. If they cannot or will not free the economy, or if they further destroy Indonesian markets with increased state intervention, they should not blame those who want to migrate to other countries to pursue prosperity for themselves and their families. Liberty and prosperity are basic needs of all human beings.