During the Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesia was the last to feel its impact but ultimately endured the most severe consequences, suffering from the plummet of the Rupiah and economic recession.
Siti Sundari is an Indonesian migrant worker, who went to Taiwan in 2000 and stayed there for eight years. To improve her quality of life, Sundari decided to leave her hometown and start a new life in an unfamiliar new place.
“At that time, Indonesia experienced soaring prices, massive layoffs, and widespread protests, while Taiwan offered relatively higher salaries and a more stable social environment. That is why I decided to go to Taiwan,” Sundari remarked.
According to the statistics from Taiwan’s Department of Labor, over 300 thousand migrant workers went to Taiwan in 2000, with nearly a quarter originating from Indonesia.
“Taiwan ranks as the third-largest destination for Indonesian migrant workers, and the primary factor for its popularity is its comprehensive welfare and friendly environment for migrant workers,” Yang Jun-Ye, director of the press information division at the Taipei Economic and Trade Office in Indonesia (TETO), stated.
Yang indicated that while Taiwan may not offer the highest salaries as compared to other places, it sets itself apart by protecting the rights of migrant workers by laws, ensuring the minimum salary and access to health insurance equivalent to the treatment that Taiwanese workers receive.
Sundari was a domestic worker. Her responsibilities included caring for an elderly woman, handling household chores, such as cooking or housecleaning, and assisting in the grocery store owned by the employer’s family.
When asked about whether working in Taiwan was hard, Sundari disagreed by shaking her head in the negative.
“My employer’s family was really kind to me. They treated me like their own family members and even gave me red envelopes during the Lunar New Year. Thus, I did not find the work to be tough at all,” Sundari stated.
Yet, living abroad may not always be as splendid as it seems.
“At first, since I could not speak Mandarin, life in Taiwan was tough. When I just arrived in Taiwan, I almost cried every night,” Sundari recalled.
Whenever Sundari felt homesick, she would either call her family in Indonesia or pray. The voices of her family members and the power of religion became her consolation in Taiwan.
“Fortunately, my sister and brother also came to Taiwan for work, so we could meet occasionally during our days off. There were also many Indonesian people and stores in Taiwan, so I gradually adapted to life there,” Sundari remarked.
Based on data from Taiwan’s Department of Labor, Taiwan witnessed a surge in demand for social welfare workers in the 1990s owing to its aging population.
However, with the development of society, the labor demands also shifted in different stages. Although the proportion of social welfare and industrial workers was nearly equal from 2009 to 2012, industrial workers remained the majority most of the time, constituting 60-70 percent of the migrant worker labor force.
Sundari’s husband, Jaenudin, also went to Taiwan as a migrant worker in 2000, working six days a week at a steel smelting plant.
“Even though the working conditions in the plant were hot and messy, I did not mind it since the salary was quite high for me,” Jaenudin stated.
According to Sundari and Jaenudin, their monthly salary at that time in Taiwan was about Rp7.2 million, which was three times higher than a similar job in Indonesia.
Apart from the quite high income, Jaenudin’s employer and colleagues were also the driving force that kept him going.
“There were people from Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan in my workplace. No matter where they were from, everyone was friendly. In addition, my employer was also nice, and we are still in touch to this day,” Jaenudin remarked.
Despite arriving in Taiwan in the same year, Sundari and Jaenudin did not cross paths until 2003.
“One day, I went to an Indonesian restaurant as usual. Jaenudin was sitting next to me, and he started a conversation, leaving me with a good impression of him. Actually, it was like love at first sight,” Sundari described the scene of their first encounter.
From that day on, Sundari and Jaenudin began dating.
Parks and Jaenudin’s factory were their most frequent date spots. Apart from these places, they also visited Taipei 101 and Kaohsiung Love River that are the northern and southern parts of Taiwan, respectively.
“Once, on my birthday, he bought me a necklace and said, ‘I love you,’ which touched me deeply,” Sundari recalled.
With Jaenudin by her side, Sundari found her life in Taiwan less lonely. Jaenudin was always there to listen and support whenever she encountered difficulties or felt low.
After Sundari turned 25, she returned to Indonesia to start a family and have children. Jaenudin returned with Sundari and did not go back to Taiwan until their son was two.
However, after Jaenudin went back to Taiwan again, things did not go well.
The factory he worked for faced a financial crisis, reducing his shifts to as little as two days a week. What was even worse was the fact that the factory would at times delay his husband’s wages.
The key factor that prompted Jaenudin’s return to Indonesia was an accident in which he was struck by a piece of iron in his right eye while working.
“Jaenudin underwent three surgeries for his eye, but unfortunately, he could barely see now with his right eye,” Sundari stated.
To their relief, Jaenudin’s employer covered all the surgery fees and continued to pay him during his sick leave.
After returning to Indonesia, they used up their savings from working in Taiwan to purchase a house, fields, and equipment to launch their business.
Now, the couple operates a mini gas station, provides agricultural grinding services, and grows dragon fruit fields to make a living in Banyuwangi, East Java.
"Thanks to the savings from our time in Taiwan, we could invest in the necessary equipment. If we had not gone to Taiwan, we might have struggled not only to afford the equipment but also to put food on the table," Sundari stated while expressing her contentment.
Now, their own business provides them with higher income than the average despite being lower than what they had earned in Taiwan.
“Even though it was tough sometimes, I miss life in Taiwan so much,” Sundari remarked.
The island is not only an essential phase that brings Sundari and Jaenudin closer to the life they pursue but also the first chapter of their love story.
Despite all the ups and downs they experienced along the way, Sundari and Jaenudin managed to conquer all obstacles, accompanying each other on their journey from Taiwan to Indonesia.
Their time in Taiwan is like the gas station they now operate, providing them with sufficient fuel for their life journey.
Their resilience and adaptability while facing changes will continue to propel them forward, slowly but surely, to tame the challenges ahead.
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