Dedi Suhendi Kasmuri has been a migrant worker since 1999, having worked during that time in Malaysia, Canada, and Taiwan. Most recently, Dedi worked for a construction company in Taipei, though since February 2017, he has been sheltered at the Hope Workers’ Center. Dedi has told the story of his experience as a migrant worker for the documentary series, “The Migrant Worker’s Face.”
By Dedi Suhendi Kasmuri
Edited by Hannes Zetzsche
“Hey Papa, you have a baby. She’s a woman.”
From that phone call—when my wife announced that we were the parents of a beautiful, healthy baby girl—until now, I have never spent more than a seven-month period of time living in the same country as my daughter.
I was married to my wife in 2005, near where I grew up in Indonesia. At the time, I was nearing the end of my second employment contract in Taiwan. I was very fortunate to have been employed by a good boss at the time because when I requested time off for a wedding in Indonesia, he graciously gave me four months’ leave.
My wife discovered that she was pregnant only a month after our wedding. I had already returned to my job in Taiwan, and couldn’t ask for more time to be at home with her in Indonesia during the pregnancy. I remember my tears of bittersweet joy when she told me I was a “Papa.”
When I was a little boy, I remember my father telling me, “You’re the man and you must work to make your family happy. Have principles.” The first principle he taught me was that if God closes one door, He opens a window. If you can’t go one way, then look for the other route.
My father also taught me a second principle, this one relating to my future family. He would say that women have many desires and only one way to attain them, while men have many ways of attainment for those desires but few desires of their own. As a husband and father, I have tried to attain the desires of my family.
I have been a migrant worker since 1999 and a worker since 1990. Even during my school years, I was always focused on work. At 11 years old, I would scurry after school to a traditional convenience store near my home in Java, a city about an hour’s drive from Jakarta. I continued working there until I went to university in Jakarta in 1995 to become an electronics-technician engineer. I finished three years at the university, but realized that I could make substantially more money as a laborer abroad than I ever would as an engineer in Indonesia. To one day become a suitable family man, I saw a clear choice. In 1999, I took a job packing newspapers for the Taiwan Times.
I worked for three years in Taipei, helping to produce daily editions of the Taiwan Times. I enjoyed the work and I was good at it—after a year of packing newspapers, I was promoted to the printing team. But when I returned to Indonesia in 2002, I had little to show for my hard work.
When I arrived to my mother’s home in Java, I remember feeling shame and responsibility—hadn’t my father taught me that it was my responsibility to take care of the women in my family? My mother lived in a bamboo hut, the kind that did little to protect her from the weather of a monsoon or heavy rain. I wanted to build her a more substantial home, one she could be proud of, but I still had no money.
Of my earnings in Taipei, I had sent half of every month’s paycheck home so that my parents could survive. My father was nearing his death at this time, and my mother relied on my support for basic necessities. Between the cost of my parents’ living expenses and my own, I had saved no money and I felt ashamed that I couldn’t buy my mother a better house.
Hoping anew to earn a better life for my mother, I returned in April 2003 to work in Taiwan, this time at a plastic factory in Taichung. My father died just months after I began working in Taichung, and I became a husband-then-father in short order during late 2005 and early 2006. By the time, I had completed my three-year contract at the plastic factory, my responsibilities as the man of my family had grown.
I first met my daughter when she was a year old. My wife and I had decided over the phone to name her Keysa Aulia Siyahira, an Arabic name that had come to me in a dream. The name means “power” and I hope that one day she will be a strong woman. I had seen the girl on Skype before and I had heard her baby noises, but there was nothing like holding her for the first time.
Of course Keysa is no longer a baby, or even a little girl. She is now 10 years old and becoming an exceptionally smart, strong woman.
I am encouraged by Keysa’s devotion to her faith. Just this year, she was named the Qur’an champion in the whole region surrounding our home in Java. In competition, she had memorized more verses from the holy book than any other boy or girl from her age bracket in the whole region. When she recounted the competition for her proud father, she told me that from on stage she had been asked by the judges to recite specific verses from the Qur’an: “Please recite the 94th chapter, verses 15 through 18…” And my daughter was the best!
Next, she will compete at a national competition in Jakarta; if she wins, she will move on to the world championship competition in Cairo for a chance to win automatic and free admission to the university system in Egypt. Though she is only ten years old now, I hope that she will one day be university educated. She tells me that she has already memorized half of the entire Qur’an—her abilities are miraculous!
Unfortunately, I have been able to spend very little time investing in my daughter’s growth over the years. While she was born, I worked in Taichung at the plastic factory. I returned home a year later to meet my daughter and spend time with my wife and mother, but I realized again that I would not be able to sufficiently provide for my family if I stayed near home. I returned to the plastic factory in Taichung for another three years, and then I took a job in Malaysia.
I worked illegally in Malaysia for about a year and a half. After arriving in 2011 on a tourist visa, I stayed beyond the three-month duration of my legal stay. I had found a job collecting palm oil. The work in the fields of palm trees was very difficult—I would work all day cutting leaves in the hot sun for the equivalent of NT$10,000 per month. I felt that I was underpaid for the intensity of labor there, and so I ran away after five months and took a job at an excavation company. This work was much better.
My boss there saw that I was skilled at operating the backhoe, and he asked me if I wanted to make extra money driving a truck. I said yes, but I knew that I had never driven such a large vehicle before. When my boss tested me, I drove the truck successfully. Through gritted teeth, I remember commanding my arms to turn the steering wheel and make the long truck turn as I desired. From that point on, I commandeered the truck to deliver diesel to a refinery; I made five trips daily and I earned almost as much per day as I had been making per month while harvesting palm oil.
My excavation company was eventually bought out in 2013 by a Canadian company that dealt in offshore oil drilling. My boss asked me to join him in Canada, so I did. Granted tremendous responsibility, I was charged with managing all of the company’s tools and loaning them to my coworkers as needed. I stayed there for eight months, but in April 2014 I was tired and returned home to Indonesia.
By 2014, I had already spent 15 years as a migrant worker. I remember the feeling of exhaustion that overcame me when I arrived home in 2014. I was 34 years old and I had spent almost half of my life working away from home. I had already missed the first eight years of my daughter’s childhood.
My first wife and I had divorced by this point. The enduring distance proved too much for too long of a time, and we went our separate ways. Keysa lived with my mother and the two had moved into a nicer house, the kind of home I had wished for them all those years ago. In the days after arriving home, I thought how nice it would be to stay nearer to them and perhaps open a convenience store, a 7-11, with which I could continue to support the women in my family. But after continuing to send half of my paychecks home every month, I still had no savings. I had returned with only Rp 10 million (Indonesian Rupiah), far too little to open a store of my own. So after seven months of rest, I decided I would return to Taiwan.
My broker was very bad. The man I hired to place me with a Taiwanese employer charged me a placement fee of Rp 20 million (NT$45,317). I remember seeing advertisements with this man’s face, claiming that he could put Indonesians into a good job at a Taiwanese construction company for Rp 8 million (NT$18,127). But once I agreed to his terms, he changed the cost to Rp 20 million, more than double what we’d agreed upon. I felt cheated, but there was nothing I could do. I used the Rp 10 million I had saved, all that I had, and my brother loaned me an additional Rp 10 million. In December 2014, I moved to Taipei.
Once I began working in Taipei, I realized that I may have been fortunate to have only paid a Rp 20-million placement fee, as some of my new coworkers told me horror stories of being charged Rp 24, Rp 25, or even Rp 26 million. But any measure of fortune quickly disappeared from my view: in addition, to the Rp 20 million he had demanded to facilitate my arrival in Taipei, he continued to require a monthly fee of Rp 3.3 million (NT$7,500) from my paycheck for the next 10 months. I was working for him.
To make matters worse, my broker told me two years later that I would not be allowed to complete my three-year contract, the term we had agreed upon and for which I had paid my placement fee. I was among a group of 112 Indonesian men at this time, and the broker fired us all for no reason at the same time. We realized that his strategy was to send us home, so that he could hire a new batch of workers, to whom he could charge a new placement fee. We felt robbed!
I was the first person of my group to call the Hope Workers’ Center. From my many years of experience as a migrant worker, I knew my workers’ rights in Taiwan, rights that I was certain had been violated. I also had picked up proficiency in English and Chinese, and felt comfortable requesting the help of the Hope Workers’ Center. I remember Susan, a caseworker at the center, answered my questions in my native language, Bahasa Indonesian, which was very comforting. She asked me exactly what had happened and how many people were affected.
Since that conversation, I have stayed in the shelter at the Hope Workers’ Center. Susan and Sister Rosa, another Bahasa-Indonesian speaking caseworker at the Hope Workers’ Center, quickly set about helping my coworkers and me. They taught us about our rights, and we organized protests in Banqiao to demand that the Ministry of Labor review our case. The Hope Workers’ Center staff negotiated with our broker and employer, and we were granted some severance pay. I continue to be optimistic that I will be transferred to a new employer soon where I can finish out my term of legal labor in Taiwan.
Do I have advice for others in the same position as me?
Would I move away from home again to be a migrant worker? Yes, I would. My father instilled in me the value of hard work and caring for my family, and I have sought to honor his legacy accordingly. The opportunities in Indonesia would not have afforded me the same things that I have been able to earn elsewhere and I am grateful for what I have been able to give to my mother, my daughter, and my wife; in 2015, I met a beautiful Indonesian woman who was also working in Taiwan and we married the same year. I have been fortunate to provide a very decent house to my mother where she can live out her life and where my daughter can continue to make me proud.
Yes, I would move again to Taipei for that first job at the Taiwan Times. But for now, I am tired. I hope to live near my daughter.
When I finish this contract, in 2018, I hope to move home and open a 7-11.
This reflection by Dedi Suhendi Kasmuri has been published by the Hope Workers’ Center as an entry to “The Migrant Worker’s Face” documenting project. The Hope Workers’ Center continues to seek stories like Palmer’s with which we can add detail to migrants’ intricate face. There are two ways that you can help us. If you are a migrant worker and would be willing to share your story, we want to hear from you directly! You can read instructions about how to participate here. If you are not a migrant worker, then we ask you to continue supporting our project: read our stories weekly and invite others to do the same.
The Hope Workers’ Center is dedicated to supporting migrant workers in our community. Through this project, we hope to appreciate the beauty of each person’s life while fostering recognition among a wider audience of the struggles that migrants regularly encounter in their work. Thank you for your support!