Indonesian documentary filmmaker Ismail Fahmi Lubis’ Help Is on the Way (2020) offers a broader and deeply personal look at the plight of domestic workers and caregivers. A stat in the opening credits conveys that more than 3.4 million Indonesian women work abroad in domestic care roles (a very recent stat says 4.5 million) and earn at least six times more than what they make at home. On the one hand, Help Is on the Way looks at the social and economic reasons that push young Indonesian women to take up tough contractual jobs, which will keep them away from their families for 2-3 years. On the other hand, we get a glimpse at the lives of those who successfully migrated for a job and the huge burdens they carry upon their shoulders.
Ismail Fahmi Lubis’ Help Is on the Way specifically follows the lives of four Indonesian migrant domestic workers: two have enrolled in training centers to go abroad, whereas another two middle-aged women have settled down with their job in Tapei, Taiwan. The documentary opens with trainee Indonesian migrant workers getting asked simple questions on camera. The young women cheerfully answer the questions, anticipating better prospects, but 26-year-old Sukma, triggered perhaps by a dark memory, starts shedding tears. She reluctantly communicates that she had a difficult time while previously working in Malaysia for nearly 31 months without being able to speak to her family.
While there are official agents who send women to work abroad as domestic workers, some are conned by illegal organizations. They become victims of extortion, and, at worst, they endure suffering at the hands of human trafficking rings. Sukma’s tears reveal the dangers related to the work and how quickly the promised land can turn into a prison. Nevertheless, Help Is on the Way isn’t a uniformly bleak account of the women migrant workers. It provides a poignant, bittersweet look at the women’s dreams and challenges while also closely studying their social and cultural environment.
Indonesia is generally regarded as an orthodox Muslim nation. Despite such generalizations, the country has a high female literacy rate and has achieved gender parity in education. However, cultural, financial, and social issues hinder Indonesian women from pursuing higher education. Instead of getting married and being forced to serve the family in the home environment, they do the same abroad, reaping dignity and financial independence as the rewards. Of course, many of these Indonesian women carry the burden of repaying debts, and a comfortable life might always elude them.
21-year-old, lean, and shy Meri hails from a low-income family. Her sick father already makes plans for the money she is going to earn abroad. Meri’s family also faces the dilemma of marrying her to a man and receiving a little dowry or spending money to send her abroad for work. Meri, Sukma, and many other young Indonesian women enroll themselves in a caregiver training program. The school is situated in Indramayu, West Java, where hundreds of women every year are trained to be placed as domestic workers, particularly in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. They receive mandatory English and Mandarin lessons apart from the classes on assisting the elderly.
Muji has worked many years abroad as a caregiver. She currently resides in Taipei and takes care of 77-year-old Ana, a Parkinson’s and dementia-afflicted woman who was a former TV show host. Muji compassionately takes care of Ana, who needs daily exercising and walking; her diaper needs to be changed, and food must be fed. Muji is a divorced mother. She discloses how her husband left her for another woman, citing that she was “a poor man’s daughter.”
Muji has slaved for her husband’s family for years. Despite the ennui in her current life, Muji lives with dignity and saves money. At one point, we see her trying to speak to her child through video call but is unable to do so. But the care and love with which she takes care of Ana almost feel like a relationship between a mother and her baby. Moreover, it’s not always work for Muji. At one point, she takes Grandma Ana for a stroll, and we see a gathering of other Indonesian migrant caregivers. They share their stories while being treated to Indonesian snacks.
Tari is the fourth Indonesian caregiver portrayed in Help Is on the Way. Unlike Muji, she works at a Nursing home in South Taiwan, where she assists different older people. In the evening, she goes to classes to finish her university degree. Tari’s father’s dream was to make her study and live independently. But she blames her younger self for getting pregnant and crashing her father’s dreams. Tari tearfully states that this is her way of apologizing to her now-deceased father.
While Sukma gets her placement in Tapiei as soon as she finishes her training program, it takes quite a few interviews for Meri to receive a job offer. Most caregivers are expected to lift people five kg higher than their weight. But Meri is considered underweight (42kg) to be able to do such chores. It’s one of the reasons for her prolonged waiting period. But even when we hear about the news of her going abroad to work, there’s a feeling of pensive sadness. Meri will work for three and a half years in Taiwan, carrying not only her aspirations but also her family’s expectations.
In Help Is on the Way, we perceive the poor yet enterprising women giving their best to overcome their predicament. Yet, it’s also clear that these women are confined by a patriarchal society, where they are repeatedly warned of predatory men and asked to conduct themselves in a manner ‘befitting a woman.’ At home, fathers, husbands, or boyfriends make their own plans with the women’s money. At one point, a teacher at the caregiving school advises Meri to save money for herself. The adversities these women face are plenty, perhaps not even comprehensible to privileged people for whom everything is provided. But it’s inspiring as well as heartbreaking to look at such wonderful individuals striving to make the most out of their lives.
Overall, Help Is on the Way (91 minutes) provides a powerful and honest glimpse into the lives of Indonesian caregivers and domestic workers.
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Help Is on the Way (2020) is now streaming on iwonder
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