Exotic Location, Big Money, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
By Kate WaltonAugust 28, 2012
Between 500,000 and one million Indonesian women move overseas to work every year. Their hopes of a happy life and financial stability are high, but does the reality match their expectations?
"You've just missed the new group of women going overseas," our host apologises as we sit down in the front room of her small but cosy cement house. "They just left last week for Taiwan."
Husnawati*, a 35-year-old housewife in a small village an hour and a half's trip outside of Kendari, the capital city of Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, knows the migration process well. Husnawati had never been outside of the province before, let alone flown on an aeroplane, before she was sent to Jakarta for pre-departure training on how to serve her new employers well in far-away Saudi Arabia.
"They taught us all sorts of things in Jakarta," she explains. "How to cook different food, how to act around the family, how to use household equipment — you know, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, that sort of thing."
My colleague, a young woman from the Indonesian Women's Coalition (KPI), where I am a volunteer, glances at me, looking puzzled. "What's a vacuum cleaner?" she asks.
I'm momentarily lost as to how to explain. "It's like… an electric broom, I guess," I suggest, looking to Husnawati for confirmation.
"Yes!" she exclaims, laughing. "An electric broom!" She giggles like a young girl, demonstrating to my colleague how to use a vacuum cleaner. "It sucks up all the dust and all you have to do is push it!"
Husnawati spent five years in Saudi Arabia, working for two different bosses. "My first boss withheld my passport from me, and even though he died nine months after I began working for him, I never got my documents back. I complained at the Indonesian Embassy but everyone said they couldn't help.
"If I wanted to go home, I would have to pay myself. How was I supposed to do that?" Husnawati exclaims, waving her hands in front of her.
"My boss hadn't paid me. I didn't have any money, and the Indonesian embassy didn't want to help. They just told me I had to go back to work. They said, 'Did you come here to work?' I said, 'Yes,' and they said, 'Well, then you should work. What's the point in going home when you came all the way here?' In the end, I didn't have a choice. They found me a new family to work for. Eventually, I was deported when the authorities found out I didn't have a visa or a passport anymore. But I was lucky — me and all of the other Indonesian women deported from Riyadh at that time at least got to come home by plane. I heard that women deported from Jeddah have to come by boat."
WORKING OVERSEAS HAS been an extremely popular choice amongst Indonesian women for years now. So popular, in fact, that the Indonesian government even has its own national body dedicated to migrant workers — Badan Nasional Penempatan dan Perlindungan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia (BNP2TKI), or the National Body for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Labour. Commonly known by the acronym TKW, for Tenaga Kerja Wanita (literally 'female labour'), around 375,000 women were placed overseas legally with the assistance of BNP2TKI in 2011; the real total, however, is estimated to be much higher. The most popular destination for women was Saudi Arabia, followed at some distance by Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and the UAE.
"Taiwan's just opened for us; it's a new destination," Husnawati tells us, counting off far-flung locations as though they're villages just down the road. "Saudi Arabia will open again next month, and I think applications for Abu Dhabi [in the United Arab Emirates] closed last month."
Even countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Maldives, Uruguay and Russia have become destinations for Indonesian female migrant workers in recent years; a surprisingly high 120 Indonesian women worked legally in Russia in 2011, while 323 were placed in the Maldives, according to BNP2TKI.
While their male counterparts (approximately 200,000 in 2011) tend to work in construction, female Indonesian migrant workers are usually placed in households to work as maids or nannies, and are responsible for everything from cooking and cleaning to bathing grandparents and minding children. The work done by these men and women results in billions of dollars of remittances being sent home to Indonesia every year — USD6.1 billion in 2011 alone.
Despite the size of the industry and its important contribution to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian families, abuse and harassment of migrant workers is common. Almost all returned female migrant workers report problems of varying severity — wages are cut, delayed, or never paid; passports and identity documents are withheld and sometimes never returned; and sexual and physical abuse by bosses, family members, and policemen is not uncommon.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2008 that while such problems occur in all migrant labour-receiving countries, they are particularly serious in Saudi Arabia. "The Saudi government and the foreign missions of labour-sending countries receive thousands of complaints from domestic workers each year," the report reads. "Most domestic workers reported working 15-20 hours a day, typically with one hour rest or no rest at all. None of the interviewees had a day off or paid leave." In addition, they note "that many domestic workers' problems may remain unreported given isolation in private homes, employers' ability to repatriate workers at will, and poorly functioning redress mechanisms that provide little incentive to seek official help."
Most of the women we spoke to never reported the problems they experienced. Those who did, such as Husnawati above, rarely receive sufficient help. Even if they ran away, many were returned to their boss by the police, embassy staff, or immigration officials. Migrant worker shelters have been set up in cities such as Jeddah and Riyadh, but most are too full to accommodate all women in need of assistance. Even once back in Indonesia, Human Rights Watch reported that government authorities and recruitment agents are hesitant to take action for fear of a reduction in foreign job opportunities for Indonesian citizens. Few cases are prosecuted, with even fewer satisfactorily resolved.
All of the 17 women interviewed for KPI's research had their passports withheld; none were allowed outside the home without being accompanied by their boss or another family member; all were locked inside the house or their room when their boss left the house; and only a few were permitted to have their own mobile phone.
"My boss took my passport and my bags as soon as I arrived," Yanti*, a trained nurse, tells us. "I didn't even get to see my suitcase before he took it. He just told me to go with this other man to where I would be staying before I moved in with the family. I had nothing with me but the clothes I was wearing; they made me stay two days in a strange place with no people in it before they came to get me again.
"When they finally took me to the boss' house, where I would be working, none of my things were there in the room they'd prepared for me. Just the previous maid's clothes — nothing more than rags. Everything I had bought in Indonesia before I left was much better quality, much more fashionable!" Yanti laughs, and shrugs. "They made me wear the old clothes. I didn't have a choice."
Yanti, like many other female migrant workers, is also a survivor of domestic abuse. One of the children she was responsible for looking after frequently used to make up lies about what had happened while his parents were at work, saying that Yanti had hit him or wouldn't feed him.
"Of course, his father believed him," Yanti says grimly. "So he would beat me, then lock me in the bedroom or the bathroom for hours. It was so cold in the bathroom. He hit me the whole time I worked for him. In the end, I couldn't stand it anymore; I didn't care about the money he owed me, or getting my clothes back or anything else. What was important was that I went home. So I did!" she smiles triumphantly.
Some female migrant workers return to Indonesia having been sexually harassed or abused. Echi*, a shy young woman of 24, came back from her stint in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, two months pregnant. She is one of three women from her village who bore children as a result of being forced to have sex with their bosses. Echi was sexually abused for six months by her boss while his wife was living with her parents after giving birth to a child.
"He would follow me into his bedroom whenever I went to put away clothes that I had ironed. His wife never knew. I never asked for help because I didn't know where to go, and even if I did, I was too scared to report him. When I found out I was pregnant, I told him I wanted to go home, so he bought me a plane ticket back to Indonesia instead of giving me my wages," Echi explains.
I spot her child hanging around on a friend's front porch later in the afternoon — now six years old, Abdul* is a handsome child, with slightly curly black hair and a distinctly Arab nose. "Hidungnya mancung," all the villagers say, laughing — "His nose is pointy," something much sought-after in Indonesia, where pesek or 'flat' noses are the norm. His mother takes it as a point of pride that at least the child she returned with from Saudi Arabia has a pointy noise.
ONLY A HANDFUL of the former migrant workers in the village said they would ever think about going to work overseas again. One woman, who worked in Saudi Arabia as a maid in order to earn money to help her husband go on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, said if they had another important financial need, she would consider it. Her experience had been good, she reasoned — no problems with wages not being paid, no sexual harassment, no physical abuse. She enjoyed her time there.
Another former migrant worker, Haja Nurhaya*, now in her late 30s, has already worked overseas four times — once in Kuwait, from 2001 to 2003, and three times in different cities in Saudi Arabia, from 2003 to 2010. Her only suffering, she explained, actually took place in Indonesia while she was overseas. Both her parents had died while she was away — first her father, while she was living in Kuwait, then a few years later, her mother.
"Other than that, I didn't have any problems working overseas," she says. "In fact, I was probably the happiest I've ever been!" Haja Nurhaya laughs. "I used to live in a wooden shack here, and now I have this modern cement house. One of my bosses even paid for me to go with him on the hajj — I'm a Haja [someone who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca] now," she smiles proudly.
Ultimately, though, Haja Nurhaya doubts she would go back to Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else. "I have children now. I don't want to be overseas when things are happening here. I already lost my parents. I can't bear the thought of something happening to my children, too."
Haja Nurhaya now often acts as an unofficial advisor for women in the village who are considering working overseas. She always tries to be present whenever a recruiter comes to meet with women, so that she can make sure they get all the information they need. Working in Saudi Arabia or Taiwan can change your life, Haja Nurhaya tells them, saying that if they want proof, they can look at what her life is like now compared to how she lived 10 years ago.
But she also takes care to warn them that while the financial rewards can lift them out of poverty, the risks are high, too. The women nod, fully aware that others in the village have come back with burns, scars, and even children. With more overseas opportunities on the horizon every day, however, and with few chances of employment at home, many women still believe the risk is worth taking.
"Work is like worship," one former migrant worker tells us. "My experience in Saudi Arabia was very valuable, because it taught me that if we do not work with a sincere and honest heart, there's no point. If we are sincere, God will watch over us and show us the way."
The other women nod in agreement. Unspoken thoughts of the three local girls newly departed for Taiwan hang thick in the air.
*Names have been changed. The author wrote this article following research conducted for the Indonesian Women's Coalition in Southeast Sulawesi (Koalisi PerempuanIndonesia Wilayah Sulawesi Tenggara).
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