When Agas Saptoadi, a teacher in Kalimantan, posted a shitty, classist takedown of Indonesian domestic helpers on Facebook, the criticism of his "once a servant, always a servant," bullshit came fast and fierce. But it was a video made by two domestic helpers living in Hong Kong who clapped back with the best response.
"I have a message for that teacher who said migrant workers only eat leftover food, wear second-hand clothes, and talk big: We’re happy here," said a video posted by Elly Agustina, a domestic helper who vlogs under the name EllyAgustina26. "I make a lot of money and it’s halal (legit). That teacher probably only makes one fourth of what I make every month.
"I’m proud to be a migrant worker, even though I’m just a servant. I’m proud because I can send some of my money for my parents and family back home, I can save up to build a house. You’re a teacher but acting like an uneducated person. If you’re really a teacher, and you have a degree, you wouldn’t have said that. Only people with a low level of education would say something like that."
Elly is one of a growing community of Indonesian migrant workers who are finding a voice on YouTube. More than nine million Indonesians currently work overseas, many of them as domestic helpers in wealthier places like Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Together, these overseas workers are responsible for infusing billions of US dollars a year into the Indonesian economy, with as much as Rp 118 trillion (about $9 billion USD) in remittances entering the country in 2016 alone.
But migrant workers' contributions are often overlooked back home. Instead, a lot of people talk down on migrant workers, characterizing them as low-skilled and uneducated, the kinds of people who have to move abroad and scrub some stranger's bathroom to earn a living. The situation abroad is equally tough for migrant workers, especially for female domestic helpers who are routinely victims of domestic and sexual violence at the hands of their employers.
So, most of the conversations about migrant workers back here in Indonesia fall into one of those two camps—either unfairly deriding them as low-skilled or talking about them in the terms of victimhood.
What most of these narratives miss is the simple fact that, for many migrant workers, their jobs abroad are both a much-needed way out of poverty and a chance to live the kind of middle class life they wouldn't be able to attain back home. The minimum wage for a domestic helper set by the government in Hong Kong is $4,410 Hong Kong dollars a month, or about Rp 8 million a month. That's more than double the minimum wage here in Jakarta, and well above what a teacher at a public school in Kalimantan would earn in a month.
Elly told VICE that she first started vlogging just as a way to share some technical information with her fellow migrant workers so they could adjust to their new life abroad, and better protect themselves.
"I like talking in videos, and I like making videos," she told VICE. "Back then I didn't know I could make so much money from this. My biggest wish is for migrant workers to know all the rules and regulations so we're not oppressed by our employers. That's why I make vlogs."
Soon, Elly was able to partner with her friend Andi Kers, another migrant worker in Hong Kong, to make a series of videos that offer training and advice for new arrivals that was sponsored by a telcom company here in Indonesia.
Putri Ariyanti, another migrant worker who lives in nearby Taiwan, started her vlog to debunk negative myths about migrant workers. On her channel, PutriOshyn16, she talks about how close she feels to her elderly employer and offers a little-seen perspective on her life overseas. In her videos, Putri is seen walking around Taiwan in fresh, fashionable outfits, a stark contrast to claims that all domestic helpers wear second-hand clothes from their employers, spend all their time inside, and don't get days off.
These vlogs are also a welcome counter to the prevailing idea in Indonesia that vloggers have to be rich people posting about "the good life." Most popular vlogs in Indonesia are about Korean skincare tips, holidays on lavish yachts, and reviews of Michelin Starred restaurants. And whenever anyone tries to use the same format to talk about more attainable stuff the rest of the collective internet responds with criticism.
Instead of fancy hotels, these new migrant worker vloggers are posting room tours of the converted shipping containers where they live in South Korea, or beauty hacks where you can use cheap toothpaste as a substitute for pricey skin creams. Some even show how to cobble together DIY sambal to help with those homesick blues.
"These vlogs are our resistance," said Putri. "We’re trying to show that we’re not like people think we are. Not all of us become prostitutes here. People look down on migrant workers, they say, ‘why would you be a foreigner’s doormat?’”
Vlogs like these are far more common amongst migrant worker communities in East and Southeast Asia, where they often have more access to technology and public spaces, said Mulyadi, of Migrant Care, an advocacy group. Those working in the Middle East often live far more cloistered lives as a result of the realities of living in a place like Saudi Arabia.
Mulyadi told VICE that these vlogs are able to resonate with migrant workers across the globe by showing off a lifestyle that feels similar to their own. It's also an incredibly useful way to get important information directly to the people it affects most. Migrant workers are far more likely to believe someone like themselves over a government official.
“The way we see it, vlogs are their way to self-actualize," Mulyadi told VICE. "This is how they try to reconstruct their identity. I think this their attempt to debunk the stigma.”
And as digital literacy and access spreads, messages about workers rights and information about the kinds of organizations migrant workers can turn to when they're in trouble can help make life abroad safer, Mulyadi explained.
“I’m optimistic that with more access to information online, there will be progress for migrant workers in the Middle East," Mulyadi said.
And, maybe, in the process, all of us living back home will start to forget all those negative stereotypes that exist about migrant workers and start to see them as people living lives not all that different from our own.