Wednesday, 24 November 2010

In the current slave trade, Indonesia the largest exporter

Upon hearing the news of the murder of an Indonesian housemaid and of another who was severely tortured, both in Saudi Arabia, the nation went through somewhat predictable motions. The government lodged protests with the Saudi ambassador and the public went into a frenzied outrage - fueled by a barrage of media reports about the ordeal that many poor Indonesian women working overseas go through.
Typically, all of the responses demanded the same thing: better deals and better protection for these women working abroad. No one — not the government, not the politicians and not even the activists in advocacy groups that help these women — are suggesting that the practice of sending housemaids be stopped completely.
The stakes are just too high, in terms of employment opportunities and the billions of dollars of foreign exchange earnings these housemaids send home. The nation has just too much to lose from phasing out what is essentially a 21st century version of the slave trade.
Live-in housemaids — whether in Jakarta, Surabaya, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, Dubai, Hong Kong, Taipei or anywhere else in the world — essentially work under arrangements not unlike the slavery system of old.
The contract that a maid signs is unenforceable the moment after she steps into the house. She becomes a slave and the employers become her masters. The masters can disregard contracts, international conventions and national and international laws. There is nothing that she, the slave, can do. The only law applicable inside the house is what master says. Like the old slavery system, the maid a piece of property owned by the masters.
Don’t be misled when a maid tells you that she is treated kindly, like a member of the family. That is precisely the bond that evolves between servants and masters, instead of the professional or contractual kinds of relationships found in most other areas of employment.
While most maids may work for benevolent families, some unfortunate women have violent employers, such as Sumiati, who is now nursing severe wounds in a Saudi hospital after abuses allegedly inflicted by her employers, or worse, allegedly murderous employers, such as the family who employed Kikim Komalasari.
Nobody knows for sure how many others are there like Sumiati and Kikim — not only about Saudi Arabia, the Middle East or Malaysia, but also here in Indonesia, where the bulk of the Indonesian women work as housemaids.
The few cases that do surface are just the tip of the iceberg. Out of fear stemming from the master-servant relationship, most cases of abuse in Indonesia and elsewhere go unreported.
The whole point of the slavery-like system is that there is not much that the law or the government can do to protect maids from being abused  – except to take action after the fact (and then only if maids have the courage to report their employers to the police, assuming they were still alive). There is no mechanism that can prevent the employers from abusing their maids if they want.
Another factor that makes housemaids comparable to slaves is the absence of free will. Like olden-day slaves, these women are condemned to this kind of life by abject poverty and a lack of educational opportunities. Most are destined to such work by circumstance. Being a housemaid was never their choice.
Unfortunately, the nation’s attitude is not helping them. Instead, everyone seems to want to maintain this slavery system.
Indonesian households are the biggest beneficiaries of modern day slavery, so they have no interest or incentive in phasing out the system. Just listen to the complaints that housewives make two weeks every year when their pembantu take annual leave for Idul Fitri. Some families are so dependent on housemaids that they check into five-star hotels in their absence.
Indonesians, first and foremost, need their housemaids. Those sent abroad are just a surplus that the country has decided to generously share with other countries in the world.
The government, which should take the initiative to phase out the slavery system, is instead glorifying housemaids as “heroines of foreign exchange”. But officials are only interested in the forex receipts and commissions they get from labor exporting agencies. The way these vulnerable housemaids are harassed after their return shows the contradiction between what the government says and what it does.
More than 65 years after Indonesia’s founders proclaimed independence, it is disheartening to see that the nation, with the government in the lead, is deliberately perpetuating a system which keeps part of the nation in perpetual poverty and ignorance  —  ultimately to work as slave labor for others, at home and abroad.

[RAP: Brilliant, angry, forthright and clear commentary. More like this please. If only the Indonesian government recognized the importance of this issue.

In this comment "Don’t be misled when a maid tells you that she is treated kindly, like a member of the family. That is precisely the bond that evolves between servants and masters, instead of the professional or contractual kinds of relationships found in most other areas of employment." RAP is reminded of the "house-negro" (as opposed to the "field negro") spoken of by Malcolm X, only with Indonesian Domestic Workers they're already called "house"-maids. ( )

It is irrelevant how pleasant life might be with her owner, domestic workers have rights and must be respected or brought home. No third option.]

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