Migrant Worker Organizing in Indonesia

03 January 2017

This article examines attempts by Indonesian migrant labor NGOs, migrant worker organizations and trade unions to promote the labor rights of Indonesian migrant workers employed overseas. In recent years trade unions in Indonesia have increasingly been forced to acknowledge the existence of overseas labor migrants. But NGOs have dominated migrant labor advocacy initiatives, and grassroots migrant labor organizations such as the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (IMWU) have developed independently of existing trade unions. Unions in Indonesia, like unions in other countries of origin, have been only marginally involved in migrant worker issues because of their physical boundedness within the nation-state and their focus on the formal sector. In other words, the fact that unions operate primarily at the national and sub-national scales and the difficulties they have had incorporating workers employed in less structured workplaces, and particularly in the informal sector, limits their capacity to assist or organize citizens employed outside the boundaries of the nation-state. This paper argues that unions must move beyond their traditional structures and spheres of influence in order to address the needs of overseas migrant workers, who represent an increasingly important union constituency in countries such as Indonesia.