News / Asia

Indonesian Migrant Workers Leave Saudi Arabia

Indonesian workers shout slogans during a protest against the alleged abuse of Sumiati, an Indonesian worker in Saudi Arabia, outside the Parliament, Jakarta, Indonesia, (File).
Indonesian workers shout slogans during a protest against the alleged abuse of Sumiati, an Indonesian worker in Saudi Arabia, outside the Parliament, Jakarta, Indonesia, (File).
Kate Lamb

During the past month, Indonesia has issued special travel documents in lieu of passports to some 4,550 of its citizens in Saudi Arabia who claim they are trying to escape poor labor conditions or abusive employers.  But, with more than two million Indonesian migrant workers still in the country, the government is under increasing pressure formalize their protection with the Gulf nation.

Migrant workers return to Indonesia

Indonesia authorities flew home some 2,500 of the migrant workers on their new travel documents in late September.  The another 2,000 are being housed in a shelter near Jeddah and will return to Indonesia at the end of the month.

Authorities say most of the applicants for the documents are domestic workers who were forced to surrender their passport to their employers as part of their employment agreement. Such measures are common in Saudi Arabia, where domestic workers have few legal protections.

Anis Hidayah is the executive director of Migrant Care, a group in Jakarta that works to protect migrant workers. She wants a formal agreement between the two countries protecting the basic human rights of the migrant workers.

“In Saudi Arabia there are no national regulations about domestic workers, but Saudi is the biggest country that where there are so many domestic workers. So how to bridge the situation is we push for Indonesia and other sending countries to negotiate with Saudi Arabia to make bilateral regulations to protect domestic workers there. Without a  bilateral agreement I think the protection is very low for domestic workers,” Hidayah stated.

Hidayah says the agreement should focus on setting minimum wages, days off and allow migrant workers to retain their passports.

Saudi's ill treatment of domestic workers

The treatment of workers in Saudi Arabia has been a heated political topic in Indonesia since June, when Saudi authorities executed 54-year-old maid Ruyati binti Sapubi.

The Indonesian woman was beheaded for killing her employer, an action she said was motivated by self-defense, harsh working conditions and constant verbal abuse.

Saudi officials later apologized for failing to inform Indonesian authorities before the execution, Jakarta responded by barring migrants workers from going to the country. The ban since August 1st continues, but the more than two million Indonesians working in the country still have few legal protections.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Michael Tene says both sides have an interest in resolving the dispute and the government is working closely with the Saudi government to negotiate better conditions.                     

“We have imposed a moratorium of sending new workers and this moratorium will only be lifted once we are satisfied that the necessary instrument, necessary arrangements, to protect our workers in Saudi is in place and that is a process that is going on between our government and the Saudi government…There is no such time limits," Tene said. "Of course if those negotiations can be finalized in the early stage that would be better.”

Worldwide, Indonesian migrant workers send back more than $7 billion each year, money that supporters say is one of the country’s most effective forms of poverty alleviation.

With 2.5 million Indonesian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, critics say the government is more interested in the amount of remittances the workers send home to their families and contribute to the local economy.

Although Tene says the government is negotiating the release of the 43 Indonesian maids on death row, he also adds that many Indonesian workers do not have severe problems with their employers in the Saudi kingdom.

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