By Baladas Ghoshal
The surprise execution of an Indonesian maid, Ruyati binti Sapubi, without the knowledge of the Indonesian government reflects the abominable state of migrant workers resulting from poverty in South and Southeast Asia. The inability of government to provide basic amenities to the people forces them to leave from their own country for an unknown and uncertain future. The outcry over Ruyati’s life and death highlights the problem of what is often dismissed as a private matter: the use and abuse of foreign domestic workers. Several countries across the Middle East and Asia host millions of migrant domestic workers, ranging from 196,000 in Singapore to approximately 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia whose conditions in most cases are miserable.
As a reaction to the above incident Indonesia has now decided to stop its citizens from working as domestic helps in Saudi Arabia. But barring Indonesian women from working in Malaysia or Saudi Arabia is no solution to the problem of abuse. Rather, as in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, the reduction in the number of Indonesian migrants might open the market to women from poorer countries like Cambodia. It has come as a great embarrassment to President Yudhoyono, particularly after his return from Geneva where he boasted of his success in cooperating with other countries to protect Indonesian migrant workers at the International Labour Conference meeting. Human rights activists and experts have called Yudhoyono’s speech shameful and worthless. The government is now trying to save its face by shifting attention to another woman’s case convicted in 2009 of the murder of her Yemeni employer.
Saudi Arabia is one of the worst places for foreign domestic workers. In 2008, a Human Rights Watch report documented widespread routine abuse of Asian maids in Saudi households, where women were subjected to wretched working conditions, as well as emotional, sexual and physical abuse. The suffering is worse, as maids are housebound and far from home, it becomes difficult if not impossible to get any help. Even if they seek any help, the system and medieval laws in Saudi Arabia are pitted against them. Employers have huge control over them and the workers have few rights. Most have their passports taken away.
For years, Indonesia has been sending its citizens to work in Saudi Arabia and migrant workers there have been complaining of poor working conditions, abuse and violence. In the past 20 years, a total of 303 migrant workers from Indonesia have been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. Indonesians were outraged in April 2011 when a Saudi court reversed the conviction of a Saudi woman who had been jailed for three years for allegedly torturing her Indonesian maid with scissors and a hot iron. In November last year the beaten body of another Indonesian maid was found near Abha. Her two employers were arrested in that case, and then quietly released. London-based Amnesty International said the maid’s treatment, which Yudhoyono described as “extraordinary torture,” was all too characteristic of the plight of foreign workers in the region.
While the government tried to pay attention to such complaints earlier and took initiatives to deal with the host countries and even stopped sending these workers to the accused countries, the pressures of unemployment have forced it to reconcile with the situation. Traditionally, the Philippines has been a stronger advocate of its workers’ rights than the other “sender” countries, but the protest by the Indonesian president this time was unusually high-level – especially as it was voiced during the Eid celebrations.
Other countries like Malaysia and Singapore also do not treat their migrant workers well. There is an ongoing dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over the treatment of domestic maids. After several high-profile acts of violence against domestic workers, Indonesia has been forced to stop women from seeking work as maids in Malaysia for two years. It is only after the two countries signed a deal aimed at improving working conditions for maids, guaranteeing them one day off a week, that Indonesia has allowed its women to seek employment as domestic workers in Malaysia. They will be allowed to keep their passports rather than having to give them to their employers.
Diplomatic pressure can pave the way for an understanding on these issues amongst the Southeast Asian countries. To this end, International Labor Organization (ILO) has recently passed the first-ever convention on the rights of domestic workers, affirming a minimum wage, a weekly day off and a limit to their working hours obliging governments to protect them from violence. However, in order for the convention to be binding all countries must adopt it but not all will. Such initiatives will succeed only when ‘household work’ is valued and the female workers are treated with dignity. Until then foreign domestic workers will continue to suffer.
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS