Far from home amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Indonesians in Malaysia struggle to make ends meet

Migrant workers are the backbone of many economies in Asia and the Middle East and a vital source of income for families back home. But the pandemic has hit these workers hard, leading some to lose their jobs or face salary cuts. The Straits Times correspondents around the region talk to migrant workers to hear their stories.

Indonesian migrant worker Karmadi (right) gathering with fellow workers and Malaysia coordinator of Migrant Care Alex Ong (second right) at a campaign event in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR KARMADI

For nearly two months, Indonesian migrant construction worker Karmadi has had plain rice or noodles every day. If he is lucky, his friends give him vegetables and fish.

He lost his painting job with a daily pay of RM100 (S$33) in Kuala Lumpur following Malaysia's movement control order (MCO), implemented since March 18 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

With less than RM1,000 left in his pocket, the 48-year-old cannot send money to his wife and four children in East Java.

"I feel depressed. I'm jobless in a foreign country with nothing to eat," he told The Straits Times on the phone. "I told my wife to sell whatever she has - jewellery and motorbike - to survive."

Mr Karmadi is among millions of Indonesians working in Malaysia, mostly in low-paying jobs.

More than 68,000 returned home between March 18 and last Friday, but the majority chose to stay on, hoping to get back to work after the MCO ends on May 12. Many have fallen into distress.

A scavenger, Ms Lezza, grabs anything edible that she can find at a dumping ground near the Malaysian capital, instead of waste like plastics and wires that she can sell for up to RM1,500 a month.

"I collect expired dried food like bread and packaged rice just to have something to eat," she said.

The 34-year-old single mother, who came to Malaysia to work as a waitress in 2016, misses her two children and parents in Aceh. But she has no choice but to stay in Kuala Lumpur, where she was left stranded after being cheated by her agent.

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"I don't know how I can survive here... I just pray a lot," she said last Wednesday, bursting into tears over the phone.

Sharing a 2m-by-4m room with a friend in a temporary plywood longhouse of 16 people, she is more worried about hunger than the danger of Covid-19 infection.


Mr Alex Ong, Malaysia coordinator of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based workers' rights group, urged the Indonesian Embassy in Malaysia on Wednesday to speed up the distribution of food aid to Indonesian migrant workers affected by the MCO by cutting the red tape involved in applying for aid. Migrant workers must register on a website and answer a list of 17 questions to apply.

Mr Ong noted that daily-wage workers, such as construction labourers, are the hardest hit as the MCO has put a halt to many projects. But risks are also high for those still working, such as hospital cleaners, who wear no personal protective equipment, he added.

Another risk for numerous Indonesian casual workers comes from improper housing, such as shared houses with up to four people in one room. Mr Ong said: "Keeping a safe distance is a luxury for them."

According to Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, at least two Indonesians have died of Covid-19 in Malaysia out of 108 infected, though it is not known how many of these were migrant workers.

Mr Judha Nugraha, Foreign Ministry director for the protection of Indonesian citizens and legal entities, said food aid is prioritised for the worst-hit daily-wage workers such as the 400,000 construction workers. "They have no income at all during the lockdown," he said.

The embassy has so far distributed more than 200,000 packages of staple food. Around 3.3 million Indonesians work in Malaysia, of whom only 1.2 million are documented, according to Mr Judha's estimate.

  • 3.3m

  • Number of Indonesians working in Malaysia, of whom only 1.2 million are documented, according to the Indonesian authorities.

East Nusa Tenggara Migrant Care Coalition coordinator Laurentina Suharsih also voiced concerns about the situation of migrant workers in plantations.

"Many of them live in camps with lack of access to healthcare. If they get sick, they usually seek traditional remedies," she said.

In Hong Kong, Indonesian domestic worker Warni Ibrahim, 35, worries about job security, as some have been let go after their employers lost their jobs.

"I also fear being fired," said the single mother of two children. "Although I'm stressed by the current condition, I can still send money back home. If I'm fired now, I won't be ready to return to Indonesia."

Correction note: An earlier version of this article said the embassy has so far distributed more than 400,000 packages of staple food. We are sorry for the error.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline Far from home amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Indonesians in Malaysia struggle to make ends meet. Subscribe