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The Hidden Experiences of Modern Slavery Victims in Indonesia

24 Jun 2021
By Nicholas Basan
2019 Conference against slavery and human trafficking, photographer Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, sourced from flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a rapid and significant increase in the prevalence and severity of modern slavery in Indonesia. Thousands of additional  Indonesian woman and girls have been plunged into modern slavery, while current victims’ experiences have become more severe.

The pandemic has triggered a socio-economic crisis , as rising unemployment, limited government social security, and external support have forced many Indonesians to partake in exploitative employment to survive.

In terms absolute numbers, Indonesia was ranked ninetieth on the 2016 Global Slavery Index. However, it has been speculated that Indonesia’s modern slavery situation has intensified since the onset of the pandemic. Winarti Sukaesih, Executive Director of The Indonesian Child Welfare Foundation, has seen a disproportionate increase in the prevalence of modern slavery for woman and girls.

Modern slavery is an “umbrella term” often used to describe human trafficking, slavery, and slavery-like practices such as servitude, forced labour, and forced marriage. In contrast, slavery has been traditionally thought of as the condition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered as property, or chattel by law, and was not granted most rights.  Today, under international law, slavery is illegal. In practice, however, these laws are not well enforced, permitting the continuation of some forms of slavery. Slavery today is less visible than through history, but presently it is all around us and thrives on corruption, chaos, and crime.

Faye Simanjuntak, founder of Rumah Faye, a non-profit organisation that works to free Indonesian children from human trafficking, violence, and exploitation, believes the situation on the ground is worsening due to the pandemic. Simanjuntak recounts a situation where two daughters were sold off  by their parents while the son was kept. The son was prioritised due to culturally rooted gender values inherent in Indonesia. This anecdote, and the similar accounts that might be told by daughters across Indonesia, typifies the enormity of the problem in Indonesia.

A profound lack of knowledge in what constitutes modern slavery is a serious issue, as many practices of modern slavery are viewed as “acts of tradition.” Three structural issues within Indonesia which have aggravated the effects of modern slavery during this crisis are the limited access to education, poor job prospects, and lack of identity documents.

Access to education has been rapidly decreasing due to the pandemic. The swift change to online learning in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission has paralysed Indonesia’s education system. Online learning poses an immense challenge to children from poor families who have limited access to technology or the internet. Families are thinking less about education and more about survival. The lack of education is regarded as both a current and future driver of modern slavery.

The pandemic has also triggered mass unemployment and a reduction in job opportunities. As Indonesia plunges into recession, those hovering above the poverty line are at risk  of exploitation as many are willing to do anything for money. Under the most recent projection, COVID-19 could push between 1.3 million to 8.5 million Indonesian people into poverty, significantly affecting females.  The majority of Indonesian woman are employed in the informal sector, earning low and irregular incomes. They are living most precariously, and any income shocks in times of crisis make these women susceptible to exploitation.  Sudden job losses have left workers vulnerable to exploitative work as they are forced to make risky choices to make money in order to support their families. Mass lockdowns have resulted in the inability to find work and economy downturn, which makes all individuals more vulnerable to criminal activity.

Identification is often forgotten as a critical driver for modern slavery. In response to the pandemic, the Indonesian government is working to improve knowledge of and access to social assistance schemes. However, social protection coverage for Indonesian women without identity documents is severely lacking. Female victims of modern slavery are disproportionately affected by lack of identity documents. Approximately 50 million births in Indonesia have not been registered anywhere, meaning that these children do not have a legal identity. Therefore, throughout their lives, they cannot access government social assistance programs, making them vulnerable to exploitation.  This assistance plays a crucial role in the support and protection of slavery victims. The funds available through government programs provide both current and potential victims with basic financial assistance as an alternative to partaking in exploitative activities for income.

The pandemic has also increased the obstacles for victims to report modern slavery incidents or to seek assistance. There are fears that some victims may never access help due to the significant delay. Traffickers and exploiters are taking advantage of an environment in which exploitation can flourish. 

Though many international borders are shut, traffickers are not closing down operations. Traffickers are innovating and capitalising on this chaos, and they have increased their reach through misuse of the internet. Adapting to the pandemic’s stringent restriction on physical movement, traffickers are utilising mobile applications to advertise, recruit and exploit persons.

The pandemic has limited the capacity of governments and NGOs to provide support to victims and police the activity of traffickers. Governments focused on a public health emergency cannot afford to allocate money or resources to proactive investigations to identify labour trafficking and human trafficking. Additionally, NGOs are struggling with increased need for their services, while coping with less funding due to the pandemics economic impact on donors.

Programs have been redesigned to focus on the alleviation of modern slavery in the future. Education of youths in both rural and urban hotspots has been prioritised through scholarship programs. Meanwhile, other organisations have focussed on supplying packages that contain staple food and basic sanitary items. These care packages have helped limit the fallout associated with shelter closures. Shelters, which provide safety for young girls who were victims of trafficking, exploitation, and sexual abuse, have been shut for over a year due to the aggressive spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia.

Presently, there is very little that can be done to help current victims in terms of rescue efforts because of the high rate of COVID-19 transmission. Shelters will remain closed for the foreseeable future. The pandemic, though a tragic situation, offers an opportunity in that it has given governments and organisations time to plan for the future and the physical movement of victims across borders has been limited. Going forward, the focus must be on tracking victims and mitigation programs. Implementation of robust plans now will aid the elimination of modern slavery in Indonesia as restrictions eventually become less strict into the future.

Nicholas Basan is a Commerce and Indonesian student at the University of Western Australia. He is passionate about economic development and modern slavery issues in South East Asia, especially Indonesia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.