Migration Systems and Identity: Indonesian Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Singapore

In its more than forty years of existence, Indonesia’s overseas labour migration programme has recorded almost seven million departures, with Hong Kong and Singapore being popular destination countries in the Asia-Pacific region. These migrants’ capacity to integrate into these countries is circumscribed by a migration system that makes their stay temporary and extracts between 30 and 100 per cent of their income during their first and sometimes subsequent periods of employment for payment of fees to migration intermediaries. Like Singapore, post-handover Hong Kong has a legislature that passes employment and immigration laws for application in that territory only. The conditions and experience of Indonesian migrant workers in the city-states are similar in this respect, but they are different from each other in three main ways. In Hong Kong, there is a minimum wage; it is criminal for employers to deny some labour rights; and the state there guarantees migrant workers a wider range of civil and political rights. Each place presents migrant workers with a unique set of opportunities and constraints to negotiate life and work, and the ways Indonesian domestic workers have gone about this have contributed to the formation of stereotypes about their character there.

Comparative approaches such as these have been used to study the behaviour of other large Asian diaspora groups, including the Chinese and Indians.[1] These studies warn against essentialism and so risk drawing conclusions that are in fact generalisable to a much broader segment of the global population.[2] At the same time, they recognise that there are characteristic ways in which certain diaspora groups respond to life and work outside their country of citizenship. To illustrate: a group of migrants that hails from the same village in upland Southeast Asia may share similar practices for resisting unfairness when they find themselves on the weak end of power relationships with employers. In such conditions, they are expected to use ‘footdragging, dissimulation, false-compliance, pilfering, slander, flight, and so forth’ rather than directly challenge those with more power.[3] As a result of the specific ways in which Javanese migrant workers do so in Hong Kong and Singapore, employers and employment agency staff have come to espouse certain stereotypes about the Javanese’s behavioural, emotional, mental and personal characteristics.

This chapter demonstrates that the migration system determines the migrant workers’ capacity to engage with political, economic and socio-cultural institutions in Hong Kong and Singapore, prompting them to behave in ways that are partly influenced by their ethnic and national identity. The first section introduces the Javanese working in Hong Kong and Singapore, explaining how and why they are mostly temporary labour migrants who do not have the right to settle. The second section shifts the focus to a set of constraints and opportunities that shape the way in which this group of migrants responds to life and work in their host setting. The final section discusses how these circumstances have contributed to the formation of stereotypes about Javanese character and suggests methods to further examine them. In conclusion, this chapter argues that migration systems determine the level of engagement that migrant workers have with their host setting and in the process contribute to the process of stereotype formation about the character of migrants.


Indonesians constitute a significant proportion of the ethnic minority population in Hong Kong and Singapore. In both cities, they are mostly temporary labour migrants who have been employed by residents to clean their apartments, shop, cook and look after their children.[4] In 2013, there were around 140,000 temporary Indonesian migrants working in Hong Kong while 100,000 or so were employed in Singapore. Indonesian citizens constitute over half the foreign domestic worker population in both cities. Migrant workers from the Philippines make up the other significant proportion, with much smaller numbers of workers from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. In Singapore, these migrant workers live and work in a society of four million people who identify with various Chinese (74 per cent), Malay (13 per cent), and Indian (9 per cent) ethnic groups.[5] By contrast, Hong Kong is a distinctly Chinese city, where over 93 per cent of the population speaks a Chinese dialect as their first language.[6] In both cities, Indonesian domestic workers constitute roughly 0.02 per cent of the entire population.

The Javanese make up the majority of the Indonesians there. The Indonesian government recorded that in 2011 and 2012 just over 60 per cent of those who used the overseas labour migration programme were resident in Central and East Java.[7] These statistics record residency at the time of registration. It is common for migrant labour employment companies to recruit citizens in different parts of the country and then have them processed in jurisdictions where they are not normally resident.[8] With this in mind, Brebes, Cilacap and Kendal in Central Java were among the top ten local government jurisdictions that reported processing migrant workers in 2011 and 2012. In these years, government data on poverty show that Brebes and Cilacap had the first and third greatest number of residents living below the poverty line.[9] The high number in Kendal is due less to poverty and more to the fact that the local government has special relationships with the labour recruitment industry that it developed under the leadership of a former official of the Ministry of Manpower in the early 2000s.[10] Following the moratorium on placements to Saudi Arabia in 2011, Malang, Ponorogo and Blitar in East Java were elevated to the top ten local jurisdictions, revealing the greater extent to which residents of Java migrated for work. In 2012, 86 per cent of labour migrants in the top ten local government areas last resided in Central and East Java, with Hong Kong and Singapore being the second and third most popular destinations.

Although Javanese labour migrants constitute a small proportion of the population, the job makes them much more visible than would otherwise be the case. On a day-to-day basis Hong Kong and Singapore residents delegate household tasks to foreign domestic workers in order to free up energy and time for other activities, including gainful employment and relaxation. It is for this reason that Javanese can be seen washing vehicles in carports, shopping for groceries in markets, posting letters on the street, taking children to school and accompanying the elderly to hospital appointments. On Sunday, large numbers of Javanese migrant workers can be found enjoying time off work in public spaces. In Hong Kong, the main meeting points are Causeway Bay, Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, where the labour migrants gather to socialise and organise cultural, religious and other entertainment activities. In Singapore, they frequently meet in and around the Orchard Road area to socialise only, partly because the state does not support migrant groups to associate in public spaces as freely as in Hong Kong. By contrast, employment relations are frequently hidden from the public eye, taking place as they do within the private sphere of employers’ homes. Regardless, extreme cases of physical abuse are infrequently picked up by the international mass media, serving to remind observers that Hong Kong and Singaporean residents do far too little to ensure foreign domestic workers’ physical safety.

The typical Javanese domestic worker is a woman. The reason for this in both places is largely because of immigration policy and employer demand. The Hong Kong Immigration Department does not specify that foreign domestic workers must be women. The Sex Discrimination Ordinance prevents the Department from doing so. Nonetheless, it recognises that Hong Kong residents normally employ women as domestic workers and so asks prospective employers to make a special case if they want to hire men. Similarly, the Singaporean Ministry of Manpower only allows employers to bring in men for domestic work if they have valid reasons, such as requiring a physically strong worker to help bathe an elderly male. This combination of employer preferences and government policy means that Javanese men employed on foreign domestic helper visas in Hong Kong and Singapore are few and far between. To deal with the risk that the women might give birth in Singapore and then sponsor their babies to stay in the country, the government there requires them to undergo pregnancy tests bi-annually. If the migrant is found pregnant and wants to keep the child, the employment contract is terminated. In Hong Kong, abortion is a subsidised health service. But employers frequently put pressure on the migrants to resign if found to be pregnant, and so avoid providing the migrants with labour entitlements such as maternity leave pay.[11]

Javanese domestic workers have at least a primary school education. Singapore requires foreign domestic workers to have eight years of formal education. In Hong Kong, they should have two years of relevant work experience. In 2004, Indonesia passed a law that required citizens to have nine years of formal education if they wanted overseas domestic work. The education limit was lowered a few years later after migrant labour recruitment companies challenged it in the Constitutional Court, arguing that the law denied all citizens equal access to employment, which was a constitutional right.[12]  Privately, recruiters admit that, regardless, they routinely send citizens who fall short of requirements for overseas work because it is no problem to purchase ‘real but fake’ (asli tapi palsu or aspal) documents from the Indonesian authorities as a workaround. As a result, large numbers of Indonesians work overseas with aspal qualifications, with the effect that Indonesian, Hong Kong and Singaporean government data do not accurately reflect the actual education level of migrants.

Javanese domestic workers’ personal identity documents are frequently changed before they apply for employment visas. Dates of birth are doctored in order to circumvent the minimum age requirement.[13] In part, this is due to the fact that the law in some respects is aspirational about who should migrate for work. For example, Indonesian law requires citizens to be at least twenty-one years old if they want to work overseas as a domestic worker. Singaporean immigration policy sets the minimum age at twenty-three, and Hong Kong at eighteen. However, migrant labour employment companies lament that it is difficult to meet demand for the kind of people that governments want to migrate for work at the wage level offered by employers. To do so, the companies pay around Rp 5,000,000 (US$ 500) to informal intermediaries for each migrant they recruit. All, part, or none of this fee is disbursed to the migrants in the form of a financial inducement, such as pocket money (uang saku).[14] It is at this stage that most migrants’ identity documents are altered by changing dates of birth, with the view to making them eligible for an overseas employment visa. To meet Indonesian, Hong Kong and Singaporean eligibility criteria, ages are revised upwards with the effect that the state represents migrants as being older than they really are.

The migrant demographic has changed over time, shifting in response to factors that are beyond the migrants’ control. The 1997 Asian financial crisis had the effect of wiping out employment opportunities in Indonesia, eroding real wages for those still in work and making foreign currency much more valuable. This resulted in a spike in demand for overseas work.[15] In Singapore, demand for Indonesian domestic workers rose despite the crisis, partly fuelled by promotion campaigns that advertised ‘zero cost’ migrants.[16] This business practice effectively transferred all migration costs, including payment of international travel, to the workers. In Hong Kong, demand also rose as migrant labour employment companies found employers willing to underpay those they hire.[17] The number of Indonesian domestic workers doubled by the end of 1999, and despite significant wage cuts in 2003, the number doubled again, whereas the population of Filipinos declined and other nationality groups remained small. In summary, the Indonesian labour migrant population grew quickly in both cities despite the fact that the cost of migration increased and employers offered poorer employment conditions. This indicates that those who left Indonesia at this time came from families that had fallen on hard times and were willing to make compromises in return for income so as to help make ends meet at home.

In another way, changes to education policy in Indonesia have meant that those going to Hong Kong and Singapore have higher levels of education. In 1984 President Suharto attempted to make six years of basic education free and mandatory for Indonesian citizens following reports that around 1.5 million children had never been to school. In 2003 President Megawati Sukarnoputri worked with the legislature to extend free and mandatory education to nine years. Problems with implementation meant that this schooling was not always free or otherwise accessible, but various interventions since then have resulted in much higher attendance rates of children at primary schools and much greater levels of enrolment at junior high school.[18] Local governments have also made budget allocations to subsidise or pay entirely for senior high school education in line with the national government’s ongoing program to at least make twelve years of schooling free. As this indicates, Indonesians born in 1992 will often have at least nine years of education, while those who are older were only guaranteed to have six. Migrant labour recruitment companies in Indonesia admit that they falsify more education certificates for older migrants because that age bracket regularly falls short of the minimum education requirements for employment visas.

In both places, the geographic distribution of Indonesian domestic workers is largely determined by the social class of employers. They are frequently hired by the lower social classes and so are concentrated in certain areas.[19] In Hong Kong, the increasing number of Indonesian migrant workers in the early 2000s is partly attributed to the success of migrant labour recruitment companies in finding employers who were willing to risk paying between 40 and 60 per cent of the minimum wage.[20] Yuen Long is one area where large numbers of employers did so. In Singapore, there is no minimum wage and residents have a much longer history of employing Indonesians as domestic workers, so the distribution is more even. In both cities, employers who want the domestic worker to help educate their children are encouraged by family, friends and migrant labour recruitment companies to employ Filipinos, for the reason that Filipinos generally have a much higher level of formal education than Indonesians, and speak English. As a result, Filipino domestic workers tend to be employed in middle-class areas that put a premium on this kind of assistance. By contrast, migrant labour recruitment companies recommend that employers hire Indonesians to take care of elderly family members, as they have developed a strong reputation for patience and attentiveness to older household members.

In turn, the social class of Indonesian domestic workers distinguishes them from employers, migrant labour recruitment companies, government officials and compatriots. Their lack of knowledge about systems and processes as well as their limited ability to understand rights and obligations enable employers to abuse and otherwise exploit Javanese domestic workers with relatively little fear that law-enforcement authorities will intervene. Individual law-enforcement officers frequently dismiss reports of abuse and exploitation as misunderstandings, which even occurs when an interpreter is hired to facilitate communication, suggesting that language is not the only barrier that prevents Javanese domestic workers from seeking assistance to enforce rights.[21] The relationships between Javanese domestic workers and other Indonesian residents, including consulate staff, international students and expats show that social class is a more significant barrier. These other Indonesians frequently complain that the behaviour of Javanese domestic workers has given Indonesians a reputation for not understanding how to behave in middle- and upper-class social settings.[22] The women in particular feel the need to differentiate themselves as a social group, doing so by referring to one another as Ms or Mrs (ibu) and domestic workers as Miss (mbak) – regardless of other factors such as age and marital status. This form of othering plays out much more subtly in relationships with government authorities, but nevertheless influences the degree to which Javanese domestic workers are assisted.

Javanese domestic workers constitute a large majority of the ethnic minority population in both Hong Kong and Singapore and their presence in both places has much to do with employers’ demand for labour migrants, government policy and the profit-driven practices of migration intermediaries. They are a segment of the Indonesian population that has responded to opportunities for gainful employment, which in Singapore paid SG$ 450 (US$ 360) per month in 2015. Hong Kong paid HK$ 4,110 (US$ 530) per month in the same year. These income earnings contribute significantly to consumption expenditure in Indonesia, as migrant workers remit money to family especially, and these remittances constitute the second largest foreign income earner after the export of crude oil and gas. The opportunity for overseas employment helps to compensate for the fact that decent employment prospects are lacking at home. However, it is employers’ demand for their labour that has allowed migration intermediaries to make a business out of helping migrants to negotiate the various administrative processes that states require them to go through before they can start work. In their host setting, it is the stance of host governments, employers, and the society there more widely that determines the way in which these migrants negotiate life and work.


The ‘context of reception’ is a kind of ‘fait accompli which alters [migrants’] aspirations and plans and can channel individuals of similar background into widely different directions.’[23] In the case of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, this context has been defined to include laws that determine legal status, residency rights, and social mobility.[24] The largest part of the host population’s direct experience of Javanese is through foreign domestic workers and those migrants’ responses to this context. Although there is little that is uniquely Javanese about their responses, this has not prevented the formation and maintenance of stereotypes about Javanese behavioural, emotional, mental and personal characteristics. Javanese domestic workers have developed a reputation for working hard but not demanding employers to respect their labour rights. Nevertheless, employers generally agree that Javanese workers are unable to perform basic tasks without training and that they often lie to get out of work.[25] In order to understand these ideas about Javanese identity, it is worth examining the context in which these characteristics find their expression.

The context of reception is best understood by paying attention to the intention of schemes that admit foreign domestic workers. These schemes are not unique in the sense that they admit migrant workers to help meet employers’ demand for labour, for example when the local workforce does not have the requisite skills or is not willing to do the work. In the case of foreign domestic workers, the problem is the latter because employers want full-time domestic workers who live in, who will accept a wage below the market rate for local domestic workers, and will agree to flexible work hours. Policy-makers in Hong Kong and Singapore have sensitised the immigration regime to this demand, allowing it to solve the problem that their societies have come to require affordable solutions for childcare, care of the elderly, and help looking after private households. This solution enables such societies to keep working long hours for what are sometimes modest wages. In Hong Kong, employers and their spouses earning HK$ 15,000 (US$ 1,935) per month can afford to bring in a foreign domestic worker.[26] In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower considers applications for those with earnings less than SG$ 2,000 (US$ 1,600).[27] As this suggests, a group of employers hire foreign domestic workers out of necessity rather than as a luxury.

Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore have different degrees of labour rights. In Singapore, they are not covered by the Employment Act. In Hong Kong, the Employment Ordinance applies but they are not entitled to the universal minimum wage, as there is a much lower one for their job category. Further, working hours standards do not apply. Policy-makers in both cities argue that it is not practical to regulate the latter because employers find it difficult to calculate overtime, as they choose not to define workers’ work and free time. Wages should be paid within seven days of becoming due. In Hong Kong, employers are liable to prosecution, and upon conviction may be imprisoned for up to three years and fined HK$ 350,000 (US$ 45,160). Nevertheless, some employers pay wages irregularly and foreign domestic workers do not report them to the government authority with powers to seek enforcement, especially when they are still in employment. [28] Reasons for this include that foreign domestic workers in Singapore are denied access to the Ministry of Manpower’s mechanisms for mediating labour disputes. In Hong Kong, where it is possible, they choose not to do so when they believe they have a ‘good’ employer.[29] Good employers are people who do not lose their temper too frequently and do not make unreasonable demands such as requiring employees to be on duty eighteen hours a day.

The immigration policy that requires foreign domestic workers to live at their workplace further complicates the employment relationship, encouraging employees to compromise on labour rights. The live-in arrangement is the product of three major considerations. First, there is a demand for full-time, live-in domestic workers but most employers cannot afford to hire a local worker to perform the role. Second, the immigration authority recognises that more employers are in a better financial position to pay the wages of a foreign domestic worker if they live in, as it justifies the payment of lower wages in exchange for providing accommodation and food. However, the fact that immigration authorities in Hong Kong and Singapore do not allow employers the option to choose a live-out arrangement indicates that government is equally concerned about the consequences of allowing hundreds of thousands of migrant women to participate more in life outside the workplace. Although the state in Singapore prohibits specific conditions and activities, including being pregnant or getting married during their working sojourn, the live-in arrangement in both Singapore and Hong Kong has the effect that it delegates responsibility to control other forms of social participation to employers.

The collection of migration intermediaries’ fees strains the employment relationship between foreign domestic workers and their employers. Indonesian law only permits migrant labour recruitment companies with a licence in Indonesia to provide job-matching services for work overseas. In Hong Kong, furthermore, the Indonesian consulate uses a local immigration policy to force all citizens to use those companies as a condition to apply for a foreign domestic worker visa.[30] These companies typically charge HK$ 13,436 (US$ 1,733) for jobs in Hong Kong and SG$ 1,807 (US$ 1,455) for Singapore. The employment contract period is typically two years but either party can terminate the agreement before its expiration. Both migrant workers and their recruitment companies prefer fees to be collected after employment has commenced.[31] Migrant workers want to see the job before they pay and the companies find that migrant workers bargain less if they do not have to pay anything upfront. As a result, the lion’s share of migrants’ wages in Hong Kong and Singapore goes towards settling recruitment debts in the first six months. These systemic practices influence the labour migration experience of most Javanese domestic workers.

Negotiating life and work

Wages are higher in Hong Kong, which motivates Javanese labour migrants from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to try their hand at domestic work there. Singapore is seen as a jumping board for jobs there partly because migrants are told that they should work in Singapore for two years in order to become eligible for a Hong Kong employment visa. Those who follow this advice directly experience two different systems for collecting fees for recruitment services, one in which employers make deductions from wages (Singapore) and one where the migrants make payments to private financiers (Hong Kong). They also know about the better quality of labour rights that foreign domestic workers should have in Hong Kong. But whether those rights are respected depends squarely on employers, who have their own reasons for hiring Javanese workers.[32]

Employers claim that Javanese domestic workers are more compliant because they respect authority figures. Friends and migrant labour recruitment companies are often the first port of call for employers seeking advice on whether to hire a Javanese domestic worker. They warn against candidates who are young, who are not expected to remit money regularly to support their families at home, or who have had too much work experience, as they are more likely to resist employers’ directions. In addition, employers are told to avoid hiring domestic workers from East Indonesia, where the population has a reputation for being more direct and outspoken. By contrast, domestic workers from Central and East Java are said to be more amenable, especially towards employers who occupy a higher social position based on achieved status, including education, employment and income. Ascribed status, including sex, race or parental social status, is another determining factor. As Indonesian domestic workers typically come from areas of Java where social stratification positions them on the lower tier of the system, employers expect to exercise greater power in their employment relationships, including that the domestic worker will accept unreasonable and even unlawful work conditions.

Employers complain that Javanese domestic workers lie to take annual leave and other paid holidays because they are opportunistic. Javanese domestic workers frequently claim some urgent matter such as an accident, an illness, or a death in the family to take paid and unpaid leave from work, often giving the employer short notice. In Hong Kong, the employment ordinance allows employers to appoint paid leave and rest days after consulting employees. But the government department with responsibility for implementing the law does not define consultation or other caveats such as reasonable excuse for failure to grant leave. At the very least, this legal context gives employers flexibility to determine when employment entitlements are given, with the effect that the power relationship around this matter is further skewed in favour of employers. As a result, employees learn that employers will consider the urgency of the leave request against their own immediate needs. It is partly for this reason that Javanese foreign domestic workers attempt to tip the scale in their favour by claiming a major life event as the purpose for taking leave.

Employers observe that the migrants are less professional than other nationality groups during normal work hours. Specifically, they complain about the frequency with which the migrants use cell phones to communicate with friends and family, and so frequently introduce rules such that the workers may only chat and make calls after work is finished for the day. Typically, a foreign domestic worker’s day starts between six and seven o’clock in the morning and concludes by nine or ten at night. They do not always work for the entire period but many employers do expect the migrants to be available for work six days a week. This effectively restricts the migrants’ ability to participate in social interactions outside the household from Monday to Saturday. Their use of cell phones helps to compensate for this restriction during rest time but also when they are idle at work. Employers are known not to assign sufficient tasks, which sometimes leaves the migrants with little to do, and so the domestic worker uses their phones to compensate for feelings of boredom with the monotony of daily routines.

In Hong Kong, employers are generally supportive of their workers’ participation in social activities outside the workplace on the weekly day off, which punctuates the cycle. Indonesian domestic workers can join a wide range of formal and informal groups which encourage and promote practices from the homeland, including social gatherings that function like a rotating savings association (arisan), that discuss religion and worship God (pengajian), and that teach dance and music. A wide range of civil society organisations provide avenues for these groups to compete or otherwise interact with one another in a public forum. Hong Kong employers are more cynical about the migrants’ involvement in social activism, such as membership in unions and associations that advocate change to immigration and labour policies, which typically benefit employers at the migrants’ expense. Employers’ wishes in Singapore are similar in this regard but migrants there are denied the opportunity to participate in organizations  regardless  largely because there are so few organisations concerned with migrant labour rights. Singapore does not support migrants to self-organise for political and other social purposes, and the weekly day off was only introduced in 2013, which prevented them from doing so despite the ban. As a result, the migrants have had much less time to engage in life outside the workplace and so the scale of migrant activities is much smaller than in Hong Kong.

Employers are told that Javanese domestic workers will show little initiative because they expect to receive instructions to perform even simple tasks. For example, employers often complain that if told to vacuum the living room, a newly-hired domestic worker from Java will do so but then hesitate to neaten the employer’s possessions lying on the coffee table. Employers claim that Javanese domestic workers do not receive adequate education and training before commencing work. At the same time, Javanese domestic workers also feel like guests in their employers’ homes even though immigration policy requires them to live there. They frequently worry that the employer will deduct from their wages the cost of accidentally breaking an item. Furthermore, they are concerned that the employer might accuse them of theft. Migrant labour recruitment companies in Indonesia reinforce these feelings when they tell intending migrants not to make assumptions about what the employer expects, with the result that the migrants decide it is safest to only carry out work that they have explicitly been asked to perform.

Employers agree that Javanese domestic workers lack common sense. Their conclusion is based on direct observation of how the workers perform tasks such as maintaining certain levels of hygiene in the household. In the kitchen, employers complain that Javanese domestic workers wash crockery and cutlery with cold water. In the bathroom, a common complaint is that Javanese domestic workers hang used towels to dry rather than put them in the washing machine, allowing bacteria to proliferate. Employers claim that these are examples which show that Javanese domestic workers lack common sense – understood to be ‘the basic human faculty that lets us make elemental judgements about everyday matters based on everyday, real-world experience’.[33] But there are two major reasons why Javanese domestic workers do this. First, their homes in Java rarely have hot water systems. Nor do they have washing machines, which means that clothing, bedsheets and towels are often hung to dry or aired before being washed by hand. Second, although Javanese domestic workers share the wisdom that bacteria can cause disease, education in Indonesia about the kinds of conditions in which bacteria can develop is not as detailed as in Hong Kong. As this suggests, the ‘common sense’ expected by employers is often based on their own particular experience of life in Hong Kong and is not a basic ability to understand how to live in a hygienic environment.

Employers’ perceptions of Javanese domestic workers are the product of myriad factors, including the quality of education that the migrants receive before their departure overseas for work. The expectation that Javanese domestic workers will transition seamlessly into life and work in Hong Kong is often based on the assumption that the migrants share common understandings about how things should be done. The fact that this is not always the case further frustrates employers who believe that Javanese domestic workers lack initiative, as those employers feel that they have to give detailed instructions about how to perform simple household chores. However, Javanese domestic workers are often keenly aware of the unequal power relationship that exists between employer and employee, and so try to prevent situations that might give employers grounds to terminate employment contracts such as an allegation of carelessness or theft, by only following explicit instructions. These conditions are not particular to the Javanese, as domestic workers from other regions have very similar experiences, which then raises questions about whether there is anything that is particularly Javanese at all about the migrants’ behaviour in this context.


These migrants’ responses are not necessarily Javanese, not least because non-Javanese subjects also react in similar ways to the context. Other foreign domestic workers and even local employees are expected to use similar strategies to negotiate life and work when they find themselves on the weak end of power relationships.[34] Employers and employment agencies have adopted stereotypes about the Javanese and the certain ways in which they do things. A way in which to examine the extent to which such stereotypes reflect reality is to pay attention to how they develop. The experience of individuals and their patterns of communication about certain categories of people have strong explanatory power. At the same time, a focus on the social structures that order relations between both groups can reveal details about the process of stereotype formation. This processual approach to examining stereotypes will not only make a contribution to knowledge about the Javanese in Hong Kong and Singapore, but will also offer an alternative starting point to draw comparisons between them and the other nationality groups that live and work under similar conditions.

The persistence of stereotypes explains how and why those about the Javanese are confirmed and strengthened, sometimes despite counter-evidence and logical arguments against them. At the same time, it enables the identification of aspects of Javanese identity that are maintained by Javanese individuals and groups outside the homeland. Focusing attention on persistent structures of social order such as stereotypes has potential to reveal examples where behaviour in the diaspora setting is indeed best explained by way of reference to practice in the homeland. This effort may then provide a resource to isolate and refine an understanding of attributes, necessary to ethnic and national identity, which persist despite distance from the homeland. Comparisons between Javanese and non-Javanese behaviour in the diaspora context subject the beliefs and thoughts about the Javanese to critical analysis. But this approach also enables analyses of the form and function of Javanese practices that persist beyond the homeland, providing another basis from which to examine how and why individuals and groups within the diaspora retain or reinvent aspects of their homeland identity outside that context.

The capacity of the Javanese to integrate into Asian host societies is severely circumscribed by temporary labour migration regimes that prevent settlement. Policy-makers in Hong Kong and Singapore explain that foreign domestic workers are issued temporary employment visas for a very specific purpose, namely to help provide the good life for residents. Singaporean authorities have gone as far as to proscribe pregnancy and marriage in the host setting, but both states have set up immigration regimes that prevent the Javanese and other foreign domestic workers from making applications for permanent residence. This effectively prevents settlement for most, which in the minds of Javanese labour migrants reinforces the idea that the working sojourn is only temporary. Labour migrants may aspire to remain for as long as possible, but know that the host state’s administrative systems compel them to leave when their employment visas expire. Surveys of Indonesian domestic workers reveal that this system orients many to the homeland as the place where they can return with social and economic capital acquired while overseas.[35]

Yet the working sojourn certainly influences processes that result in both cultural loss and cultural gain among the Javanese. Employment agencies in Indonesia and Hong Kong especially encourage Javanese migrant workers to refrain from practices that are unfamiliar in their host country.[36] Employers in Hong Kong, for example, usually will not allow Muslim employees to take time away from the job to pray five times a day, three to four of which would fall within normal work hours. Chinese employers usually object to the use of white cloth, which is customary for Muslim women to wear at the time of prayer, because they associate it with ghosts. This and other requirements such as that foreign domestic workers should adapt to the diet and cuisine of their employers, for example by cooking and eating pork, have put pressure on Muslim Javanese workers to reprioritise the importance of practices that are widely accepted in the homeland. In other words, the migrants frequently compromise and dispense with practices that can and do frustrate relationships with their employers, partly in response to the fact that the migrants live and spend the majority of their time abroad in their employers’ homes.

At the same time, the Indonesian government discourages the migrants from adopting liberal behaviours that it deems are incompatible with conservative beliefs about social norms at home. The Indonesian consulate in Hong Kong, for example, recommends new arrivals in its mandatory Welcoming Program – which is not always attended – to keep their heads down and do what they came to do: work and earn money rather than develop lifestyles that are not easily replicated at home.[37] In particular, migrants are warned against consumerism, lesbianism, immodest dressing and atheism. The consulate engages with migrant support groups, including Dompet Duafa Hong Kong, an Indonesian civil society organisation that promotes Islamic values, to reach longer-term migrants. In Singapore, the embassy is less concerned with these matters largely because the state prevents the large-scale visibility of liberal behaviour as a consequence of denying migrants a weekly day off before 2013. Social conservatism in the city stifles public displays of affection by same-sex couples. By contrast to Hong Kong, where the context of reception is more conducive to these things, officials in Indonesia’s diplomatic mission in Singapore are not as strongly motivated to influence aspects of migrants’ private lives.[38]

The Indonesian government encourages migrant workers before they leave home to learn and adopt Hong Kong and Singaporean ways of life, arguing that the practices are responsible for those societies’ capacity to modernise and maintain a relatively high standard of living.[39] Specifically, Indonesian authorities encourage intending migrants to observe their host society’s approach to raising children and using public space. They condemn the practice of Javanese mothers overindulging their children with the result that young adults are not trained to be more independent and responsible members of society. Pride in the maintenance of clean public spaces, such as roads, sidewalks and parks, is another value that authorities want migrant workers to develop outside Indonesia. Of course these are institutional objectives that the government of the day also wants to achieve at home. Nonetheless, the expectation is that the migrants will adopt these practices during their working sojourn overseas and transfer them to their place of origin after they return home, where they are then also expected to re-adopt cultural and religious practices abandoned while working in their employers homes,  such as exhibiting liberal behaviours that are thought to be incompatible with life and work in the homeland.


This chapter argues that migration systems determine the level of engagement that Javanese domestic workers have with their host setting and that they contribute to the formation of stereotypes about Javanese character. As a result of the host immigration regimes in Hong Kong and Singapore, contemporary labour migrants from Java arrive with little expectation that they will integrate into the host society and so behave accordingly. The migrants know that they will live with their employers, who will use their greater power in the relationship to enforce rules about when the migrants can interact with people or participate in group activities outside the workplace. But the migrants are not always emotionally prepared for the reality of what this means, in part because it is a secondary concern to most who sign up for labour migration. The primary concern is the income that the employment offers. A minority of migrants leave their jobs and go underground in search of greater freedoms, such as those with boyfriends or who become pregnant and want to live with the baby and perhaps the baby’s father. The majority, however, remain in employment, where they negotiate life and work with their employers for the whole time that they spend in the host society.

During their temporary working sojourn abroad, this group of labour migrants remains oriented towards the homeland, where they will ultimately be forced to return. Even many of those who go underground do not intend to settle in the host society. The greater freedoms and income often provide a temporary fix, as the migrants can pursue short- and medium-term goals, such as establishing a family in the host society and earning more money to save or remit home. They may want to remain but know that life can be very difficult, constantly living in fear of detection by the authorities. Settling in this way also effectively prevents them from leaving the host society to return home through authorised immigration check points without first reporting to the authorities, being punished and then deported. For this group, Java is not only a place where they have friends and family, it is also a place where they have the right to remain. In the minds of many of these migrants, then, settlement in the host society is not a long-term option. Rather, the stay is inevitably temporary with very few exceptions.

Nevertheless, the experience provides a limited encounter between the Javanese and the host society, which serves as a basis for individuals and groups in that society to form thoughts and beliefs about Javanese identity. In fact, these encounters offer the host society a snapshot of Javanese character and always one that is a product of the migrants’ response to their particular context of life and work in the host society. The experiences of migrants from Java who have permanently settled, including ethnic Chinese who emigrated between 1996 and 1998 in response to mass violence that victimised Chinese Indonesians, may in part be the same or quite different. A study that examines these experiences and maps the ways and purposes of these settled migrants’ interaction with the temporary migrant group from Java will help identify experiences that are unique or generalisable to migrants from Java and the host population as a whole. As a starting point, this chapter presents some detail on the formation of stereotypes about the temporary migrants from Java and offers a useful schema against which to locate accepted assumptions about the form and function of practices that in the homeland are considered to be necessarily Javanese.


Ang, I. 2005. On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West. London: Routledge.

Athukorala, P. and C. Manning 1999. Structural Change and International Migration in East Asia: Adjusting to Labour Scarcity. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

ATKI-HK (Asosiasi Tenaga Kerja Indonesia Hong Kong) 2007. The Truth Behind Illegal Salary Deductions to Indonesian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: ATKI-HK in collaboration with AMCB (Asian Migrants Coordinating Body).

BPS (Badan Pusat Statistik Propinsi Jawa Tengah). 2016. ‘Penduduk Miskin Menurut Kabupaten/Kota di Jawa Tengah Tahun 2010, 2011 dan 2012.’ [http://jateng.bps.go.id/linkTabelStatis/view/id/793]

Constable, N. 2014. Born Out of Place: Migrant Mothers and the Politics of International Labor. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Ford, M. and L. Lyons 2011. ‘Travelling the Aspal Route: “Grey” Labour Migration Through an Indonesian Border Town.’ In The State and Illegality in Indonesia, ed. E. Aspinall and G. van Klinken, 107-122. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Huang, S. and B. Yeoh 1996. ‘Ties That Bind: State Policy and Migrant Female Domestic Helpers in Singapore.’ Geoforum 27(4):479-493.

Killias, O. 2010. ‘”Illegal” Migration as Resistance: Legality, Morality and Coercion in Indonesian Domestic Worker migration to Malaysia.’ Asian Journal of Social Science 38(6):897-914.

Oonk, G. 2007. Global Diasporas: Exploring Trajectories of Migration and Theory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Palmer, W. 2012. ‘Discretion and the Trafficking-like Practices of the Indonesian State.’ In Labour Migration and Human Trafficking in Southeast Asia: Critical Perspectives, ed. M. Ford, L. Lyons and W. van Schendel, 149-166. London: Routledge.

Palmer, W. 2013. ‘Public-Private Partnerships in the Administration and Control of Indonesian Migrant Labour in Hong Kong.’ Political Geography 34:1-9.

Palmer, W. 2016. Indonesia’s Overseas Labour Migration Programme, 1969-2010. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Portes, A. 1989. ‘Contemporary Immigration: Theoretical Perspectives on its Determinants and Modes of Incorporation.’ International Migration Review 23(3):606-630.

Rosenfeld, S. 2011. Common Sense: A Political History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Scott, J. 2013. ‘Introduction.’ In Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance in Southeast Asia, ed. J. Scott and B. Kerkvliet, 1-4. New York: Routledge.

Sim, A. 2003. ‘Organising Discontent: NGOs for Southeast Asian Migrant Workers in Hong Kong.’ Asian Journal of Social Science 31(3):478-510.

Sim, A. 2007. ‘Women in Transition: Indonesian Domestic Workers in Hong Kong.’ PhD diss., University of Hong Kong.

Sumintono, B. 2009. ‘School-based Management Policy and its Practices at a District Level in the Post New Order Indonesia.’ Journal of Indonesian Social Sciences and Humanities 2:41-67.

Tan, C. 2016. ‘Enforcing Socioeconomic Rights: Everyday Resistance and Community Resources among Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers in Hong Kong‘. In The Everyday Political Economy of Southeast Asia, ed. J. Elias and L. Rethel, 218-235. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tan, C.-B. 2004. Chinese Overseas: Comparative Cultural Issues. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.


[1] Oonk 2007, Tan 2004.

[2] See also Ang 2005.

[3] Scott 2013, 1.

[4] Huang and Yeoh 1996, Sim 2007.

[5] http://www.indexmundi.com/singapore/demographics_profile.html (accessed March 21, 2016).

[6] http://www.indexmundi.com/hong_kong/ethnic_groups.html (accessed March 21, 2016).

[7] http://www.bnp2tki.go.id/statistik-penempatan/6779-penempatan-berdasar-daerah-asal-kotakabupaten-2011-2012.html (accessed June 21, 2015).

[8] Palmer 2012.

[9] BPS 2016.

[10] Palmer 2016.

[11] Constable 2014.

[12] Constitutional Court decisions 28/PUU-IV/2006 and 029/PUU-IV/2006 dated 11 April 2007. http://www.mahkamahkonstitusi.go.id (accessed March 24, 2016).

[13] Ford and Lyons 2011.

[14] Killias 2010.

[15] Athukorala and Manning 1999.

[16] Palmer 2016, 50.

[17] Palmer 2013.

[18] Sumintono 2009.

[19] Interviews with migrant labour recruitment companies in Singapore, July 2009; interviews with agencies in Hong Kong, November 2009.

[20] Palmer 2013.

[21] Interview with a migrant support organisation that provides paralegal assistance to Indonesian domestic workers with immigration, labour and police cases, April 2014.

[22] Participant observation at the Indonesian national day celebration in Hong Kong, August 2014.

[23] Portes 1989, 14.

[24] Sim 2003.

[25] Participant observation in Labour Department conciliation meetings and Labour Tribunal hearings, January-November 2014.

[26] http://www.immd.gov.hk/eng/services/visas/foreign_domestic_helpers.html (accessed March 24, 2016).

[27] The Singaporean Ministry of Manpower does not publicise the exact amount of income an employer needs to hire a foreign domestic worker. Migrant labour recruitment agencies claim that the Ministry will normally consider applications where the employer earns at least SG$ 2,000 per month (Interviews, July 2009).

[28] For a detailed explanation why this is the case, see Tan 2016.

[29] Participant observation of a migrant support organisation helping migrant workers sue their employers, January-November 2014.

[30] Palmer 2013.

[31] Palmer 2016.

[32] The following expectations and complaints are based on participant observation of labour dispute resolution processes between December 2013 and November 2014 in Hong Kong. They resonate with interview data collected from employers and labour recruitment companies during PhD fieldwork in 2009 and 2010. The narrative applies to employers in both Hong Kong and Singapore unless otherwise stated.

[33] Rosenfeld, S 2011, 1.

[34] Participant observation of labour dispute resolution processes in Hong Kong involving Indonesians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Indians and Nepalese, December 2013 – November 2014.

[35] ATKI-HK 2007.

[36] Interviews with migrant labour recruitment companies in Hong Kong, November 2009 and Indonesia, December 2010.

[37] Participant observation at the Indonesian consulate’s bi-weekly Welcoming Program for newly arrived migrants, November 2009.

[38] Interview with Labour Attaché, July 2009.

[39] Participant observation at mandatory Pre-Departure Training in Surabaya, September 2009.