News / Asia

Indonesia Imposes Moratorium on Sending Workers to Saudi Arabia

Irwan Setiawan (R) along with his sister Evi Kurniati, holds a picture of his mother, Ruyati Binti Sapubi.  The 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded on Saturday, convicted of murdering her Saudi employer, June 19, 2011
Irwan Setiawan (R) along with his sister Evi Kurniati, holds a picture of his mother, Ruyati Binti Sapubi. The 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded on Saturday, convicted of murdering her Saudi employer, June 19, 2011

Indonesia is defending its support for migrant workers days after an Indonesian maid was beheaded in Saudi Arabia for killing what she said was an abusive employer. Indonesian officials say that starting in August, they will stop sending workers to Saudi Arabia until officials there can guarantee their protection. Officials say the move is a sign they are committed to protecting their citizens, but migrant worker support groups are skeptical.

Saudi execution

The execution of Ruyati binti Sapubi, 54, has provoked a flurry of critical Indonesian media coverage of the government’s protection of migrant workers rights.  

This week, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke out against her death sentence and said the actions of the Saudi government broke with international norms because Riyadh did not notify Jakarta before it executed Sapubi.

Migrant workers groups have long said the government should do more to protect workers. Officials say the moratorium on migrant workers in August and other labor initiatives demonstrate that they are committed to addressing the issue.

“The first step we have taken in the past month was to ensure that we have a better monitoring for prospective employers," said Michael Tene, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. "Our embassy in Saudi Arabia has put in place stringent conditions before the embassy can endorse the request from prospective employers to employ Indonesian workers," Tene stated.

Abuse claims

Most of the 1.2 million Indonesians employed in Saudi Arabia are domestic workers. They often complain of being made to work long hours, having requests for return trips home denied, unpaid wages and in some cases grave physical abuse.

Some 23 Indonesian migrants are currently on death row in Saudi Arabia for crimes they allegedly committed while working in the country.

Although Sapubi pleaded guilty to killing her employer, she said it was because she was overworked, isolated and abused. Another Indonesian worker in the home has said Sapubi was repeatedly punched and kicked by her employer. Indonesian officials say Saudi courts should have taken her condition into consideration in granting her clemency.

Temporary moratorium

Indonesia has already implemented several temporary moratoriums on sending workers to Saudi Arabia. The latest came last November, when migrant worker Sumiati Salan Mustapa, 23, was hospitalized in Medina after her employer allegedly burned her with a hot iron and slashed her face with scissors.  

The head of support group Migrant Care, Anies Hidayah, is skeptical that the government’s August moratorium will be any different from the others.

She says this is one sign that the government acknowledges the case of Ruyati and many others. But she says she also deplores the fact that it will wait until August to implement it because by then there will not be any momentum. Hidayah says if the government were serious, it would implement the moratorium now.

Lawmaker initiative

A special team of Indonesian lawmakers has also come together to work on improving the mechanism for recruitment and placement of workers in the Gulf area. The team’s deputy chairperson, Eva Kusuma Sundari, says they need to improve vague, overly broad legislation that focuses more on placement for migrant workers than protection.

Critics of the government’s policy on sending workers abroad say they are more interested in the money they send home to their families and the benefits that placement agencies bring to the economy.

Indonesian migrant workers remit more than $7 billion each year, money that support groups say is one of the most effective forms of poverty alleviation. Sundari says it is another sector ripe for corruption.

Labor protection

Just weeks ago, both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia reversed their opposition to a legally binding convention on labor protections for domestic workers at an International Labor Organization summit in Geneva. It was the same summit at which President Yudhoyono took to the podium and spoke of his country’s strong efforts to defend its migrant workers.

The Saudi government has not issued a formal response to the planned August moratorium, but Tene says it is unlikely to harm relations with Indonesia. He says the Indonesian government will be able to absorb the workers who were planning to go to Saudi Arabia, while those already employed there will be able to stay until their contracts expire.

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