Sunday, September 8, 2002

Marianne Kearney
Indonesia Bureau

Middlemen swoop in to milk illegal workers

Brokers and Indonesian civil servants are charging their desperate workers exorbitant sums to go back to Malaysia

JAKARTA — As thousands of illegal workers flock to the border town of Nunukan in the hope of gaining work permits to return to Malaysia, labour brokers as well as local civil servants are moving in to make a killing.

More than 20,000 people have reportedly lined up to get a passport in the past few weeks in the small port town in the East Kalimantan province which borders the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The cost of obtaining the document, without which the workers cannot enter Malaysia, has skyrocketed.

Aid workers report that the returning workers are forking out between 1.4 million and 1.7 million rupiah (S$220 and S$340) — up to five times the official cost, which is 350,000 rupiah.

But Department of Immigration officials deny that bribes have been demanded to speed up the processing.

Instead, they say, they have worked overtime to issue 11,000 passports in Kalimantan since August.

Those who are profiting the most from the thousands of workers camped in Nunukan, however, are 'calo' or freelance agents.

These brokers offer 'services' that range from cutting through the red tape to obtain passports and work permits to promising jobs that do not exist.

Mr Najib Abu Yasser from the Humanitarian Volunteers Network said: 'Workers are paying 500-600 ringgit (S$230 to S$280) to the brokers to obtain a recommendation and other official letters, without going through the proper procedures, but they have no guarantee they can get work.'

At least 21,000 workers have been stranded on the tiny island since Malaysia adopted tough new immigration rules on Aug 1 which forced illegal migrants to abandon the country to evade caning, fines or imprisonment.

Aid agencies say they expect thousands more people to continue arriving from Sulawesi and Java in the hope of returning to Malaysia.

Labour Minister Jacob Nuwa Wea said this week he expected Malaysia to need around 200,000 workers from Indonesia.

Workers are an easy prey for the brokers because they are desperate to start earning again.

However, even Indonesian officials seem to be playing a part in such scams.

According to aid workers, at least 1,000 people were apparently promised work and issued formal applications through the Indonesian embassy in Sabah but upon arrival they discovered that the job offers were just a ruse for them to pay the fixers.

Mr Jacob said he was aware that dozens of brokers were scouting the camps for potential customers in Nunukan but said there was little he could do.

He said: 'We have to change the systems because there is no clear information and so officials can collude with the agents to do this.

'If conditions continue like this I am sure thousands of illegal workers will suffer.'

He also warned returning workers not to resort to using these agents.

If they travelled with just their passports, they would still be considered illegal, he said, because other documents such as work permits and job orders were also needed.

Critics say the Indonesian government should establish a more transparent system and, like the Philippines government, lobby the Malaysian government more effectively.

'Unlike in the Philippines, Indonesia has yet to promote a professional recruitment system covering the replacement of these workers and to treat them as human beings,' said Ms Laila Nagib, an analyst from the National Institute of Sciences.

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Created: September 12, 2002
Last modified: September 12, 2002
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