Despite migration ban, Indonesian domestic workers still face forced labour and abuses in the Gulf

Bu Tayem and her daughter show photographs of Tayem being treated in a Qatari hospital after she was abused by her employers. Tayem says she weighed 22 kilograms when she was hospitalised, after the family routinely assaulted her and denied her adequate food. Pic by Max Walden/EqualTimes

“I had only been at my employer’s house for a week and was hit and slapped repeatedly,” says Bu Tayem, a former domestic worker in Qatar, who was flown home to Indonesia in 2016 after just one year in the Gulf.

Speaking outside of her home in the village of Tegal Sawah, Karawang – an impoverished, rural area just 75 kilometres from the nation’s capital of Jakarta – Tayem looks aged well beyond her 50-something years. “They liked to torture,” she says of her former employers, a police captain and his model wife.

“They poured hot water on my back and rubbed salt into it. They hit my burns with a hot knife,” she says pointing to her scalp where hairless patches remain. “The children were the same.”

Tayem was never paid for her time in Qatar. The only money she received for 14 months of work were three instalments of about US$112, which was paid to her family upfront. Pak Ridwan Wahyudi of the Migrant Workers Union of Indonesia (SBMI) tells Equal Times this is common practice, with local recruiters generally paying around 2 or 3 million rupiah (US$150-225) to the families of migrant domestic workers prior to their departure as a supposed “promise” of things to come.

Following the execution of two female Indonesian domestic workers found guilty of murder in Saudi Arabia in April 2015, an angry government in Jakarta declared a moratorium on sending new domestic workers to 21 Middle Eastern countries in May 2015. In theory, the ban is still in place.

However, as Anis Hidayah, the co-founder of local migrant worker rights organisation Migrant Care, tells Equal Times, the moratorium was merely a “reactive” decision and had been “totally ineffective.” She says that recruitment agencies continue to work “very hard” in their efforts to send more and more women to the Middle East, especially as the moratorium has increased the amount of money paid for domestic workers from Indonesia.

A survey conducted by the organisation between March 2015 and May 2016 at Jakarta airport found that at least 2,644 domestic workers had departed overseas. They were overwhelmingly destined for Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. Hidayah said that Migrant Care had submitted its findings to the Indonesian government, but is yet to receive a response.

A report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alson, following his January mission to Saudi Arabia estimated that there are some 500,000 undocumented Indonesian domestic workers in the Kingdom as a result of the moratorium. In 2016, Human Rights Watch found that the largest group of female migrant workers in Oman were from Indonesia (35,109) compared with 17,112 from the Philippines and 26,507 from India.

The abuse of Indonesia migrant workers is widely known and covered in the Indonesian media. Migrant Care alone tracks between 400 and 900 news stories about migrant workers in local and national media each week. Statistics from BNP2TKI, the government department tasked with the wellbeing of Indonesian migrant workers, showed that 39 Indonesians died in the Middle East and Africa between January and July 2017 – that’s one person every four days.

Nevertheless, Indonesian women continue to travel to abroad in search of work.

The allure of the Gulf

As with migrant workers from elsewhere, poverty is a major push factor for migrant domestic workers from Indonesia. Dr Anisa Santoso, a researcher on migrant workers from the University of Indonesia, tells Equal Times that millions of Indonesians “flee home for a better life,” whether they migrate to urban centres domestically or overseas.

Despite highly publicised cases of exploitation, abuse and even executions of Indonesian migrant workers, “it’s very hard to keep them away from the Gulf States,” she says.

Religion cannot be discounted in a country where according to a Pew Research Center pollfrom 2015, 95 per cent of people say religion is “very important” to their lives.

The underlying impetus to travel is socio-economic, however Middle Eastern countries are often more appealing to Muslim Indonesians than other, wealthy non-Muslim majority destinations in Asia.

Also read:  In Cambodia, Chinese workers earn more, but pay the price with diminished labour rights

Many already know basic Arabic from their religious education and are provided additional language training by the recruitment company prior to departure.

Some Indonesians see working in other countries in the Asia Pacific as potentially “dirty” says Wahyudi, for example, by having to deal with dogs or cook pork (which are both considered haram or forbidden by Islamic teachings).

A recent report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis highlighted that a small group of Indonesian domestic workers have been pushed into violent radicalism by social and religious isolation in Hong Kong. One Islamic State recruit expressed her humiliation: “Could you imagine having to touch pork while wearing a niqab?”

Some Indonesians are fearful of going to Malaysia, Hong Kong or Taiwan because they worry about being trafficked and forced into prostitution.

Situations some times arise where a person is told “they’re going to Hong Kong but they end up in Batam [an island near Singapore known for its sex trade],” says Boby Alwy, the secretary general of SBMI in Jakarta.

Importantly, many Indonesians expect that if they are working in the Middle East, they will be able to undertake the umrah and hajj pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Wahyudi says this is particularly the case for older domestic workers, who are “not productive anymore,” but with unscrupulous recruitment agencies are nevertheless able to sign an employment contract, undergo a medical check-up and leave for overseas within a week. Having competed hajj bestows social status in Indonesia and plenty of domestic workers are in fact able to complete the pilgrimage, generally by accompanying their employers there.

Bu Tayem was not so lucky. Not only did she not make it to Mecca, she barely made it back home. “All my belongings, including my phone, were taken and thrown away.”

Fake documents and forced labour

Another former domestic worker in Tegal Sawah, Yanti, says that a migrant work recruitment company had falsified her documents when she was aged 17 and barely out of high school to show she was over 18 and already married.

Targeting young women is commonplace, with recruiters literally waiting outside of school gates “looking for fresh fish,” the prominent Indonesian singer and migrant rights advocate Melanie Subono tells Equal Times.

Since the 2015 moratorium, recruiters simply “manipulate” job orders so as to continue meeting the high demand for domestic workers in the Gulf, says Wahyudi of SBMI. Indonesian migrant workers are recruited for roles in the formal sector – usually in manufacturing, construction, commercial cleaning or healthcare – however upon arrival they enter the informal sector of domestic work. Most domestic workers enter Saudi Arabia on umrah or hajj visas, he explains.

Migrant Care’s local representative in Karawang, Bu Wiharti Ade Pernama, reveals that if a woman changes her mind about leaving Indonesia after having signed a contract, even if a medical check-up finds that they are pregnant, recruitment companies demand a cancellation fee of between 5 and 30 million rupiah in compensation (US$370-2250).

Now 29, Yanti went to Kuwait where she was tasked with providing cleaning services to a full apartment block. She fell from the fourth storey and couldn’t walk for six months. Told she had breached her contract, Yanti was never paid for her work by her Kuwaiti employers or the Indonesian recruitment company, and has never worked again.

Bu Tayem is also unable to work; “I can only make money from selling nasi uduk [coconut rice], my hands are all scarred and not performing properly.”

Many of the women in Tegal Sawah are still working in Saudi Arabia, those who live on what locals call Gang Dolar or “Dollar Lane,” because of the money they have been able to make there. Nevertheless, most have not retired or brought valuable skills back to Indonesia, but rather remain in a cycle of working overseas to send remittances to their families.

The Asia Research Institute has found that in 2015, 35 percent of Indonesian remittances were spent on the daily needs of families, while 26 percent was spent on the education of children. Few have the luxury of investing the money into purchasing land or developing a small business.

Also read:  In the US, big banks are divesting from private prisons, thanks to anti-ICE activism

Dr Santoso says that many Indonesian women are forced into having to repeatedly return overseas to repay excessive debts imposed by recruitment companies. A 2016 study by theJustice Centre Hong Kong found that migrant domestic workers with excessive recruitment debt were six times more likely to be in forced labour than those with lower debt. Worryingly, workers from Indonesia were 70.5 percent more likely than non-Indonesians to be in a situation of forced labour.

The kafala system imposed upon domestic workers in the Middle East prevents people from changing employer without prior approval from their original employer, making it virtually impossible to escape abuse. Given the moratorium has opened up new, irregular channels for migration, domestic workers in the Middle East are less safe than ever. Hidayah tells Equal Times that employers in the Middle East in particular can be “very brutal”, in some cases holding their employees in conditions that are “almost slavery”.

When Tayem arrived at a Qatari hospital she weighed 22 kilograms. “When they were torturing me, they would let me go six days eating nothing but white rice. They were very rich but very mean.”

While the Qatari police subsidised her healthcare while she was in the country, now she must cover all her own, enduring medical expenses. It costs around 300,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$22.50) for a visit to the local lung specialist or dermatologist. “Last month I had to go four times in a month. My head is not round anymore from all the times they smashed it.”

Hope for migrant workers

In September 2017, the UN Committee on Migrant Workers in Geneva will for the first time prepare its initial report on the Indonesia’s performance as a signatory to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Indonesia will send a delegation of government and civil society representatives, including activists from Migrant Care.

Migrant Care will showcase its DESBUMI initiative which works with village authorities and grassroots organisations across Indonesia to promote safe migration through education about recruitment practices, and establishing databases and documentation of local people who have gone abroad.

Pak Mif, the head of Dukuhdempok village in Jember, East Java, is part of the DESBUMI programme, and he will also visit Geneva. He tells Equal Times that for the 427 ex-migrant workers and 160 people still overseas from his village, many in Saudi Arabia, DESBUMI has provided greater certainty, security and economic opportunity for his citizens. “If they leave immediately, that’s what causes the problem,” he says. Now, women are safely recruited, trained and depart for overseas in a process that takes some four months. Economic empowerment initiatives mean former migrant workers now run their own catering or souvenir small businesses.

The role of politicians and influential members of the armed forces, however, “makes it difficult to crack down on bad practices of recruitment,” says Santoso. “In the end, it is big business.”

Hidayah says she hopes the UN review will build momentum towards change – particularly in encouraging the Indonesian government to pressure receiving countries in the Gulf to sign the UN Convention on Migrant Workers. Of the 66 states who have signed or ratified the convention, an overwhelming majority are sending countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.

“It’s already been announced that it’s illegal to go to the Middle East. Once I was even invited to an event in Cirebon by Ibu Retno Marsudi [Indonesia’s foreign minister] to tell my story to people who wanted to work as migrant workers,” Bu Tayem says.

“What else can we do when we’ve already tried to tell them and they still want to go anyway?”

Copyright policy

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Should you wish to republish this Elitsha article, please attribute the author and cite Elitsha as its source.

All of Elitsha's originally produced articles are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please read this.

For regular and timely updates of new Elitsha articles, you can follow us on Twitter, @elitsha2014, and/or become a Elitsha fan on Facebook.