Fitriyah was 14 when her mother left their Java village to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia. There were two letters from Sulastri after she arrived in Riyadh, and then a silence for seven years: no calls, no letters, and no money. When Fitriyah saw her mother again, she was dead. The autopsy stated that Sulastri had died from insect bites. But there was no explanation for the bruises covering the body when it was returned. “For seven years, I had no idea what had happened and why she didn’t write. Now, at least, I can understand her silence,” she whispers.
A 30-year-old divorcee with two children and a mother to support, Sulastri was like so many of the 270,000 Indonesian women who leave their families to work overseas. The dark volcanic soil of her village in East Java was fertile, but the small plot of land the family farmed and the corn they sold were barely enough to feed them. Like so many, Sulastri was seduced by the prospect of an ‘easy' job as a domestic worker in Riyadh, earning $ 165 a month.
Atikah, from the village of Kalimekar in West Java, was just 14 when she left for Riyadh. For three years she worked without a single day’s rest. She was allowed to call home, but she wasn’t allowed to leave the house and she earned around $ 30 a month. Others in neibhouring villages fared much worse. Twelve women returned with unwanted pregnancies, seven with children already and one had had an abortion — all raped by their male employers. Others never made it home, dying from physical abuse or taking their own lives.
People have been moving abroad to work, study, marry or escape persecution for centuries. But today the scale of economic migration is massive. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that there are 80-97 million migrant workers and their family members worldwide, about 22 million of them in Asia alone. The real number is much higher as these figures exclude the hidden, but huge, army of undocumented migrants and victims of trafficking. Among the reasons for this migrant explosion is the rapid growth of the labour pool in developing countries. This has coincided with the rich world’s demand for lower-cost goods and services and its labour shortage due to falling birth rates and greying populations.
In many ways, economic migration is a win-win. Money sent home by migrants from abroad contributes significantly to their country’s economy, accounting for up to 25 per cent of Nepal’s gross domestic product and 10 per cent for Sri Lanka and the Philippines. And yet, migrant workers often suffer gross human rights violations while abroad, on their return and even before they leave their villages. No one spells out for them the conditions of employment and their rights in receiving countries. Only later, when employers cut their salary, does it become clear that the broker’s fee does not always cover the cost of a medical, training, travel and their visa.
The women are held for weeks, sometimes months, in ‘training camps’ awaiting placement. The conditions are cramped, with basic wash facilities, and sometimes nothing more than wooden planks for beds. Once overseas, they are even more vulnerable as the doors of a family home close behind them, isolating them from other workers and fellow Indonesians.
In Hong Kong, Eni Yuniarti, works three days a week for the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union and three days as a maid. She helps run a hotline and counselling service and campaigns for an end to the territory’s discriminatory laws. Eni spoke for all Indonesian migrant workers when, in August, she raised these issues with the Committee of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in New York. Following that meeting, the Committee urged the Hong Kong government to scrap a rule obliging workers to leave within two weeks ending their contract and to strengthen control of employment agencies.
In Balearjo, Java, the villagers have formed an organisation called the PJP, or Daughters of Jinggo, the ancestral founder of the village. The PJP has put up large notice boards at the main crossroads listing the criteria for working abroad, giving names of legal recruitment agents and contact details for Indonesian embassies in destination countries. The Indonesian government has enacted legislation that is supposed to protect its nationals working overseas. However, most migrant organisations complain that it actually legitimises the exploitative practices they were hoping to see abolished.
PJP Chairwoman Mutmainah has a dream: returning workers will use their money to develop small businesses in the village; the economy will thrive, and the young women of Balearjo will no longer have to leave home in the risky search for a pot of gold.
Sarah Chalmers is a member of Transient Workers Count Too, Singapore