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Women Still Face Abuse After Indonesia’s Ban on Migrant Work in Gulf

Indonesia has banned its citizens from migrating to 21 Middle Eastern countries for work. But the women of Lombok are still heading to the Gulf in search of jobs, and may be even more vulnerable than before.

Written by Krithika Varagur Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Migrant worker activists hold placards during a protest in Jakarta against the beheading of Indonesian workers by the government of Saudi Arabia. Indonesia banned its citizens from working in 21 Middle Eastern countries after the execution of the two maids who killed their Saudi employers in what they claimed was self-defense.Photo by Solo Imaji / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

PUYUNG, Indonesia – Hotimah has lost her teeth and her hair. Covered in purple blisters, she sits in her parent’s one-room home as flies perch on her motionless body. The 26-year-old is recovering from severe abuse, which she incurred as a migrant domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.

She seems to have forgotten how to cough; her parents mime the action for her benefit. Twenty minutes after starting to talk about her previous life, she rolls on to the floor, clutching a pillow, and falls asleep.

Hotimah worked in Saudi Arabia for 11 years. During that time she was raped, forced to have two abortions, emotionally abused and almost certainly lost a kidney to organ traffickers. She was finally freed after a joint effort by the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh and both countries’ police. When she returned to her central Lombok village in March, she could not walk the hundred yards from the road to her parents’ house; her father had to carry her.

In an effort to stop worker abuse like the horrors that befell Hotimah, the Jakarta government banned Indonesians from working in 21 Middle Eastern countries in 2015, including the most common destination countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The ban was triggered by the execution of two Indonesian maids who killed their Saudi employers in what they claimed was self-defense.

About 4.5 million Indonesians work abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says there are 630,000 in the Middle East, but Anis Hidayah of NGO Migrant CARE tells News Deeply that when you account for undocumented workers, the number is over a million. Activists say the moratorium hasn’t stopped the flow of labor to the Middle East, and has just made it harder to address the ongoing abuse of Indonesian women there.

There are more than 100 women on Lombok island alone who were abused on work placements in the Gulf after the moratorium, says Hartutik Susilawati of Migrant CARE. Susilawati says the organization sees up to 50 people a day registering to work abroad just from a single Central Lombok village.

For one thing, news of the moratorium simply did not reach many people in the rural districts, where poverty drives the most residents to work abroad.

“The local government is headquartered 25km [15 miles] away in Praya, so there was no way for this village to get official information or warnings about the danger of migrant work,” Susilawati says. Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower could not be reached for comment on any plans to revise the moratorium in light of ongoing abuse.

“I had no idea it was illegal,” says Misnah, 30, a mother-of-two in Pringgarata, the Central Lombok village with the highest number of female migrant workers in Indonesia. “I was told I could work just two or three months, make money and go home whenever I want,” she says. “But when I arrived in Riyadh, my agent took away my phone and said I would work there for two years.”

Misnah escaped one night after a year on the job, fleeing to the Indonesian embassy. Several earlier attempts failed, she says, as her Saudi employers had bribed the police and the recruiting agency had met her escape bids with “electric shocks and sticks.”

Erni, 27, also from Pringgarata, worked in Riyadh for a year, after the moratorium, and suffered physical abuse before she escaped. She was a maid in four different houses; between jobs, she says, women were forced to stand on parade in the migrant worker agency as employers “pick the best and strongest-looking ones to take home.”

“If I asked for my salary, I would get kicked,” she says. She eventually made just $320 for the whole year, after the agent took an illegal 20% cut.

Forced Contraception

Erni and six other women say an agent forced them to have contraceptive shots before their departure, but they only realized what had happened once they landed in Saudi Arabia.

“I thought it was a vaccine, or vitamins for health, to be strong,” says Erni.

One 21-year-old, Laili, says she mysteriously menstruated for two straight months when she got to Saudi Arabia and had no clue why until other women explained the concept of medical contraception.

Anis Hidayah, of Migrant CARE’s national office in Jakarta, says forced contraception for female migrant workers was common across Indonesia: “Sometimes it’s a tablet, sometimes an injection or a physical intra-uterine device.” Recruiters constantly shift the locations where they administer shots in Lombok, so it’s almost impossible to intervene.

Indonesia’s migrant domestic workers “are seen as a commodity by recruitment agencies,” says Norma Kang Muico, cofounder of the human-rights consultancy, Rights Exposure. “Once the women enter the training centers and commit to working abroad, the agencies take steps to protect their ‘investment.’” A pregnant woman would be a business loss, so to speak.

Forced contraception is a “form of control” over women, Muico says. Similarly, “Trainees or potential migrants often have their freedom of movement restricted – they have to deposit cash or a property certificate as collateral to the recruitment agency before they are allowed to leave the training center.”

Seeking Justice

Migrant CARE has filed individual lawsuits on behalf of two victims of abuse in the Gulf, including Misnah, who recently received witness protection and is preparing to testify in the Lombok District Court. The group hopes to eventually lodge a larger case, including the testimony of at least a dozen women, against the recruiters who funneled the women there.

Hotimah will not be among the witnesses, even though she has a two-inch scar on her abdomen typical of an illicitly removed kidney. Her family will not submit her to the ordeal after her traumatic homecoming, Susilawati says. Hotimah’s condition has improved thanks to government-sponsored medical treatment. She can walk again, so she may consent to move forward with an investigation next year.

But the fact that the women should not have been in the country where they were abused is a major hurdle for the legal cases. “The moratorium makes people increasingly victimized because they work in the Middle East unofficially and with minimal protection,” says Susilawati.

“In 2011, the government cut ties with us recruiters,” says Mase, a migration agent who goes by only one name. He says he helps 500 to 600 women from Central Lombok work abroad each year.

“Of course, I am always scared and often thinking of the moratorium … I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but I also want to help people make money for their families.” He has not sent anyone to Saudi Arabia in the past year, but says there are “maybe 500” other recruiters in Lombok, and many still send women there.

The Complexities of Migrant Work

Migrant work is not an unalloyed evil. Lombok harbors severe unemployment and many of its women achieve exactly what they set out to do: Spend a few years abroad as their family’s breadwinner.

Nurhayati, a jovial mother-of-four in Nyerot, Lombok, worked legally as a maid in Saudi Arabia between 2007 and 2009, for an employer she describes as “great.” She was prompted to go abroad by, among other things, a desire to buy her oldest son a motorcycle.

Many Indonesian women who go abroad to work do so because they lack opportunities at home. (Photo by Arief Priyono/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“I would love to go back and work there – if it weren’t for my husband, who is a scoundrel, and took a ‘standby wife’ just three months after I left home,” she says. It is not unusual for a Lombok man to remarry while his first wife works abroad, according to four former migrant workers who spoke to News Deeply. All four say the prospect of their husband taking yet another wife was a powerful deterrent to seeking more migrant work.

Meanwhile, ex-migrant workers who return to Lombok, whether as victims of abuse or just having finished their contracts, almost universally find that there are no jobs for them at home.

“After my year abroad, at least I had made enough to circumcise my son … but ever since the day I got off the plane, the money I saved has been decreasing,” Misnah says. “Now we only have enough for food. Soon, maybe not even that.”

Government schemes to promote employment on Lombok are poorly conceived, says Susilawati. For instance, there have been programs to help them grow and sell melons, or make woven handicrafts, neither of which are very profitable.

“Indonesia is not ready to give jobs to those returned,” Susilawati says. “There have been no significant improvements from the moratorium. Just many more problems.”

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