Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia Highlight Migrant Work Abuse

Akito Yoshikane

A member of Migrant Care Indonesia carries a mock dead body of Kikim Komalasari, an Indonesian migrant domestic care worker who is reportedly dead due to abuse in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta on November 19.

The recent tragedies surrounding two Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia has once again turned the spotlight toward migrant abuse, calling attention to the lack of labor protections for an increasingly transnaitional workforce in the Middle East.

In just the span of a few weeks, separate incidents involving domestic workers from Asia have spurred a global outcry over the severity of cases as the public and rights groups have criticized governments for their regulatory shortcomings.

Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, remains hospitalized after suffering injuries by her employer who allegedly beat, mutilated and scalded her. Just four months since she left Indonesia to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press has made her the poster child for migrant abuse. The news of Sumiati’s horrendous abuse came just as another domestic worker’s body was found in a trash bin. The victim, Kikim Moalasari, another Indonesian maid, was allegedly tortured by her employer. The culprits in both cases have since been arrested.

Migrant women from Asia dominate domestic services in the Middle East. About 1.5 million women from countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, work in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many of them work in order to provide for their families back home, but labor laws have largely failed to ensure protections for them on both sides of the globe.

In Saudi Arabia, the employer holds a great amount of clout over the migrant worker since the residency status is tied to their work, known as the kafala system. Moreover, domestic workers lack legal protections, which makes them even more susceptible to exploitation.

And while more than 6.5 million Indonesians work abroad every year, the country has done little to protect its citizens. Indonesia’s government still hasn’t ratified a United Nations convention from 1990 to protect migrant workers. The country also has not signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would allow workers to legally challenge their employers.

Instead, the governments have deflected any responsibility. Saudi Arabia has called the incidents isolated” and Indonesia has shifted blame towards the recruitment agents that solicit migrant workers. In a major gaffe, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s even suggested that the problem could be solved simply providing cell phones to workers for emergencies.

While responsibility is skirted, Human Rights Watch details more substantive gaps in Indonesia’s lack of oversight towards the employment industry:

In their home countries, recruitment brokers frequently give migrant domestic workers inadequate or misleading information about their future employment abroad, or charge them excessive recruitment fees. The burden of servicing exorbitant debts from recruitment fees can put pressure on migrant women not to report workplace abuses for fear of losing their jobs and income.

The push and pull of globalization, in part due to the growing inequalities across countries, has caused many to seek opportunities abroad, not just in the Middle East. The migration of women, in particular from Third World countries, is often based on gender, economic, social and perhaps even racial inequalities. Increasing legal protections for workers, women especially, in the informal sector will be paramount as migrant work is slated to increase in the future.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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