News / Asia

Report Details Severe Abuse of Indonesian Migrant Workers

Indonesian activists wear the names of four Indonesian women, who were allegedly tortured by their employers in Saudi Arabia, stand in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy during a demonstration, Aug. 13, 2007 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Indonesian activists wear the names of four Indonesian women, who were allegedly tortured by their employers in Saudi Arabia, stand in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy during a demonstration, Aug. 13, 2007 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

A new report by Human Rights Watch is calling on the Indonesian government to do more to protect its workers overseas. The report comes after a series severe abuse cases among women employed in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

The report, entitled “Rights on the Line: Human Rights Watch Work on Abuses against Migrants in 2010," outlines how Indonesian domestic workers have few protections against abuse overseas, particularly women working in the Middle East.

Indonesia has made some progress on the issue by cracking down on bogus labor recruiters and educating women about the dangers of migration. But Human Rights Watch says not enough attention is being given to a group that contributes around $7 billion to the economy each year.

There are reports that many Indonesian women working as maids or nannies overseas are denied days off and are paid less than promised. There also has been a long list of grim physical abuse cases, including murders and rapes.

Nisha Varia, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, says when women are not included in an overseas country's labor laws they lose many of their basic rights and protections.

"In many countries, we see that employers are really scared to allow domestic workers out on a day off because they think that they're going to go out and get pregnant or they're going to bring home men into their house," Varia says. "And these types of behaviors really trap domestic workers in situations where they can be abused."

Indonesia has banned workers from going to Malaysia because of abuses. Around 300,000 Indonesian domestic workers currently work in Malaysia, but negotiations have stalled on revising a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding to give them legal protections, such as a weekly day of rest and a minimum wage requirement.

Many women earn as little as $90 a month over a two year contract since they must turn over the first six months of their earnings to pay the recruitment agencies that helped them land their jobs.

Some are only able to report physical abuse after returning to Indonesia, because police in the countries where they work do little to help.

In November, 23-year-old Sumiati Salan Mustapa was hospitalized in Medina after her Saudi employer allegedly burned her with a hot iron and slashed her face with scissors. The incident sparked widespread condemnation in Indonesia, prompting the government to send a ministerial delegation to Saudi Arabia to follow up on the case and provide legal assistance to Sumiati.

The National Police arrested the head of the agency that sent Sumiati to her abusive employer. Varia says the arrest sends a message that the Indonesian government wants to do something about the abuse.

Other international rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have appealed to several Middle Eastern countries to do more to protect migrant domestic workers.

Varia says cracking down on recruiters is necessary because that is when trafficking happens.

"It's particularly important to focus on what's happening at the recruitment stage, so that migrants end up going through valid recruitment channels with brokers who are actually going to get them the job that they're promised instead of tricking them and putting them in situations of extreme exploitation," she says.

Domestic workers deserve protection, says Human Rights Watch, because the remittances they send home are more stable than many forms of foreign investment.

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