Remarks by Ambassador Blake at Solidarity Center Conference, Bogor

Distinguished guests, I am delighted to have the opportunity to address this distinguished audience on a subject of such importance to us all.  Let me thank you for your participation in this very important conference.

I would like to thank David Welsh of the Solidarity Center’s Jakarta Office, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and Migrant Care’s Anis Hidayah for bringing us all together. The U.S. Government is delighted to be able to support this effort through the U.S. Agency for International Development.   We are also very fortunate to have here today our Special Representative for International Labor Affairs, Sarah Fox, who is one of our foremost experts on labor law in the U.S.

The theme of the conference is very timely.  International labor migration is an issue that has risen to the forefront of events not only in Southeast Asia, but worldwide.  It is a subject I have worked for much of my career on, including my last job as the Assistant Secretary responsible for South and Central Asia at the State Department from 2009 to 2013.

To give you the perspective from where I sit in Jakarta, some of the most important topics that I discuss with Indonesian officials, professionals, and civil society leaders, revolve around the interrelated issues of migration, trafficking in persons, labor mobility, and worker protections.  And we congratulate President Jokowi for making the protection of Indonesian migrant labor a priority in his foreign policy.

Very often, the trafficking networks that exploit the desire of workers to migrate in search of a better life abroad are the same networks that smuggle Rohingya refugees under horrible conditions, or transport drugs, contraband, and even endangered wildlife across international borders.

In all of these areas our efforts need to be focused not only on stopping and prosecuting suspected traffickers, but on ensuring labor rights are respected for all workers regardless of their immigration status.   And we need to do all of this while protecting the free flow of people and goods.  Most importantly, we need to incorporate the voices of the migrant workers themselves into the discussion.

Let me give you just a few examples, of which many of you will already be aware.  This year we have witnessed the dramatic rescue of hundreds of trafficked fishermen from fishing vessels in the waters of eastern Indonesia.  This would not have been possible without close collaboration between the Government of Indonesia and the International Organization for Migration.

The commitment of Indonesia’s Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, to rescuing these victims, ensured a ticket home for hundreds of men who feared they would never see their families again.

We also saw an outpouring of support from the people of Aceh, the Government of Aceh Province, and the Government of Indonesia earlier this year, as Indonesians rescued and cared for Rohingya who arrived off Aceh’s shores under horrible conditions.   In my experience, it is this kind of close collaboration between national governments and international organizations like IOM, ILO, UNHCR, and UNODC that is most effective.

We have also seen some of the successes of President Jokowi’s policy of protecting Indonesian workers abroad.  Early in his administration he held a digital video conference with Indonesian migrant workers to learn about their concerns.   At his direction the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has boosted the amount of resources and training for its consular staff abroad so that they can identify, screen and repatriate workers who have been exploited.

Indonesian Embassies and Consulates in the Middle East have been reaching out to Indonesian domestic workers in the region to ensure that their rights are respected, and to provide them with shelter and repatriation services in case of exploitation.  In Syria, the Indonesian Embassy has been working for years under very difficult conditions to repatriate dozens of Indonesian domestic workers caught up in the horrible conflict there.

Indonesian Labor Minister Hanif Dhakiri, himself the son of an overseas domestic worker, has made a commitment to enacting measures that provide economic alternatives to those who would normally emigrate for economic reasons.  He has also taken steps to crack down on recruitment agencies suspected of trafficking in persons, and he plans to work with the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to provide legal aid resources for Indonesian overseas workers suffering exploitation.

As I mentioned before, these issues are cross-cutting.  It is no coincidence that you often find migrant labor being exploited in situations that also are harmful to the environment.

  • Trafficked laborers from some of Indonesia’s poorest regions are often found working in illegal mining operations that accelerate illegal deforestation and expose these workers to toxic mercury that is used to find trace amounts of gold.
  • Likewise illegal fishing operations threaten Indonesia’s food security and expose migrant workers from countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to virtual slavery, and miserable working conditions.
  • Illegal logging activities threaten the sustainable livelihoods of forest peoples.

Migrant laborers find themselves in situations where they are far away from their families.  They often are in debt to their employers, and they have few prospects if they are fired from their jobs.  As a result, they are the workers who are most vulnerable to coercion.  They are less likely to object to working with hazardous materials or in dangerous conditions, or to trans-ship fish illegally on the high seas, or even to engage in drug trafficking under duress.

Migrant workers are critical to the smooth functioning of the global economy, and they have every right to migrate abroad in search of a decent living or a better life for their families‎.  Our countries must work together to ensure that they are not deprived of the essential rights which the labor movement has struggled for so many years to obtain.

Undermining the rights of migrant workers undermines the rights of workers everywhere, because it erodes the protections that our societies have worked so hard over the years to put in place.   So our efforts today have a very real relevance to the lives of the most vulnerable among us.  I thank you again for your participation, and wish you a successful conference.

As prepared.