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As freeze on workers lifts, Indonesians head to Sarawak in hope of a better life

They say they are willing to do anything as long as they can earn enough to provide for their families back home.

Nur Shazreena Ali
3 minute read
A contract cleaner sits by the side of the road to eat his lunch in this file photo taken in Jalan Chan Sow Lin, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is heavily dependent on foreign labour to fill the jobs normally shunned by locals.
A contract cleaner sits by the side of the road to eat his lunch in this file photo taken in Jalan Chan Sow Lin, Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is heavily dependent on foreign labour to fill the jobs normally shunned by locals.

When the temporary freeze on the recruitment of Indonesian workers was lifted on Aug 1, Todi and Andi were already in Sarawak.

The two friends had entered Malaysia a few days before the restrictions were lifted, arriving in Kuching from Pontianak before heading on to Sibu. 

Like thousands of other migrant workers throughout the country, they came in the hope of finding a job to provide a better life for their families back home. 

While it took less than a day for them to travel from Lombok to Pontianak, they had to spend more than 10 hours on the road from there to Sibu, switching vehicles twice. 

They took a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Lombok to Jakarta, then boarded another flight from the Indonesian capital to Pontianak. 

When they arrived at the Pontianak airport, they were picked up in a van and taken to a lodging house where they were told to be ready by 5am the following day. 

At dawn the next day, the same driver came to pick them up and drove them from Pontianak all the way to Kuching – a journey of about six hours. 

In Kuching, they were dropped off at a bus terminal. 

"This is our first time coming to Sarawak," Todi said when met by MalaysiaNow in Kuching. 

"We don't know who the van driver was. All I know is that he was asked by my uncle who lives in Sibu. He is my uncle's friend." 

Now, he and Andi are waiting for yet another person who will help get them to Sibu. 

It has been a long and tiring journey, and it is far from over. But for Todi, the trip across the miles is far preferable to life back home during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Before the onset of the pandemic, he worked at a hotel which provided him with an income for eight years. Although he did not earn much, it was enough for him to put some away as savings. 

When Covid-19 hit, though, he lost his job, along with countless others throughout the country. 

For the duration of the pandemic, he worked off and on, earning what he could by doing manual labour. 

But the money he brought home was not enough to sustain his family. When his uncle told him that he was earning more in Malaysia, Todi's interest was piqued. 

"He recommended that I join him, and I just agreed," he said. 

Todi and Andi are among thousands of Indonesian workers eager to find work in Malaysia. Their movement was halted in mid-July when the government temporarily stopped sending its citizens to work in Malaysia, citing a breach in a worker recruitment deal signed between the two countries.

Several weeks later, it lifted the restrictions after agreeing to integrate the existing system between the Malaysian Immigration Department and the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur for the recruitment of Indonesian domestic workers.

Malaysia relies on millions of foreign workers from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal to work in its factories and plantations. 

The recruitment of these workers was frozen during the Covid-19 pandemic, and their re-entry has been slow, leading to a labour crunch in many of the country's economic sectors even as it seeks to chart a path to recovery. 

Back home in Indonesia, it appears that bosses are also on the hunt for workers. 

"Recently, my former employer contacted me, asking me to come back and work at the hotel," Todi said. 

"But I refused because I had already decided to work abroad in Malaysia. Luckily, I have my uncle," he added. "He helped arrange employment for us." 

But despite his confidence in his uncle's plans, Todi is hazy on the details. 

When asked about his work permit, he said he had "no idea" as his uncle had made all of the arrangements. 

"My trip from Lombok to Sibu, everything was arranged by my uncle including the air tickets," he said. 

"I still don't know what job awaits me. But I was told that they would help to arrange any matters relating to my work. My travel expenses will be deducted from my salary."

He also insisted that he was not picky about what kind of work he would be doing. 

"Whatever type of job they give me, I am willing to work hard as long as I can earn more than I did before," he said. 

Andi, too, is not fussy as long as he can provide a better life for his wife and three-year-old daughter back home. 

"The bottom line is, as long as I can secure a better pay and a decent job," he said. 

"I intend to work hard for my family."