Father Reginald Piperno distributes communion to Catholic migrant workers from Indonesia at a company in Penang, Malaysia in 2019. (Photo supplied)
Over the past four years, Father Reginald Piperno has dedicated most of his time to helping migrant workers from Indonesia working in Malaysia.
With cooperation from dioceses in both countries, he offers them spiritual guidance and advocacy.
Father Piperno began his mission following the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between dioceses in Christian majority East Nusa Tenggara province and dioceses in Malaysia regarding pastoral services to migrants.
The MoU was signed in 2016, in Larantuka Diocese on the eastern tip of Catholic majority Flores Island. The agreement allows him to visit Malaysia four times a year, and stay there for a month each time to serve them.
He was delegated the task by Archbishop Vicentius Sensi Potokota of Ende, in Flores, but he’s found himself not only serving migrant workers from Ende Archdiocese and the rest of East Nusa Tenggara, but also from other regions in Indonesia.
“While in Malaysia I visit them at the companies where they work, and where they stay to see if they are okay and check their documents to make sure they do not flout immigration rules,” Father Piperno, 48, told UCA News.
However, the real test is trying to help the thousands working in Malaysia illegally without proper documentation.
He helps all workers, regardless of their background, in groups or individually, and offers the Eucharist to Catholics.
“I promote their rights in companies, including salaries and working conditions, and advise them on how to manage their finances,” Father Piperno says.
Following the MoU, tripartite meetings are held annually between dioceses of origin, transit dioceses such as Tanjungselor Diocese in North Kalimantan and Pangkalpinang Diocese near Singapore, and destination dioceses in Malaysia to discuss the welfare of migrants.
He said if companies are owned by Catholics, the local dioceses ask them to make sure migrants are treated well and that their documents are in order.
“I hope migrant workers in Malaysia can get closer to the church which only has their best interests at heart,” says the priest, who was ordained in 2001.
The good thing is that most of the migrants from Flores are actively participating in churches in Malaysia, he says.
Father Reginald Piperno speaks with Catholic migrant workers from East Nusa Tenggara at a company in Perak, Malaysia in 2019. (Photo supplied)
According to Father Piperno, one of the biggest challenges he faces is dealing with the fallout caused by middle-men sanctioned by the authorities to handle workers’ documents.
Documentation for Malaysia should be about US$1,000 per person, but brokers demand $1,700, making them too expensive for many.
“So, many of the migrants choose to go without documents,” he says, adding, most of them are primary school dropouts “so they are easily tricked by brokers and again by their employers when they arrive in Malaysia.”
“Some even choose to live in forests because they worried police will arrest them,” he says.
Many of them are overworked which makes them prone to sickness and can only be treated in clinics run by their companies. They cannot get treatment in hospitals because that requires legal documents they don’t have, he says.
He says their employers abuse them, even when they are sick, and even leave them to rot when those working on plantations die.
They work in inhumane working conditions, and often without safety equipment such as masks when spraying chemicals on farms or plantations, Father Piperno says.
“Many die from illness or work-related accidents due to a lack of safety measures.”
Migrant friendly parishes
According to Father Piperno, many married male migrants marry another woman in Malaysia, leaving their wives and children at home struggling to survive.
As a result, “we develop migrant-friendly parishes to give special care to their families and children,” he says.
Several parishes in Ende Archdiocese are committed to supporting families of migrant workers, such as establishing communication between families and the migrants, distributing food packages, and offering health and other needed services.
To help do this the church is seeking cooperation from local governments.
“We often struggle to get this as a result of complicated bureaucracy, but we continue to persevere,” he says.
As a result of the dangers working abroad can entail, Father Piperno says the church has to raise awareness among people, especially in East Nusa Tenggara, that working in Malaysia is not always better than working in Indonesia.
He says it’s a dilemma for the church because on the one hand there is an economic challenge. On the other, many people have gone to Malaysia not so much because of poverty but due to the mindset that that’s the fashionable thing to do.
“They always argue that they become migrant workers because of economic problems. But what they do in Malaysia can also be done in Indonesia, as manual workers working on palm oil, plantations and on farms,” he says.
“So, it’s no surprise when many return home empty-handed,” the priest says.
“It’s a sad reality because it involves thousands of people,” the priest says.
From Ende Archdiocese alone, there more than 27,000 people working in Malaysia, some of whom are as young as 14.
“We always remind people that they will face difficulty in Malaysia if they don’t have legal documents,” the priest says.
“Nevertheless, many people still go there [without documents],” he said, adding that the only possible thing that the church does is offer pastoral care to them.