Sat, 12 Aug 2000

Protect all women workers

The campaign to stop sending women workers to Saudi Arabia by 22 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has received a significant boost with the open support from First Lady Sinta Nuriyah and State Minister of the Empowerment of Women Khofifah Indar Parawansa. With the backing of two very influential women in President Abdurrahman's administration, it is difficult to envisage how the government can reject the demand, which has been voiced by various organizations for more than a decade.

The 22 groups marched to the Ministry of Manpower on Thursday to press their demand to halt the sending of Indonesian women workers to Saudi Arabia for three months, beginning on Aug. 17. They argue that the government must ensure the safety and security of Indonesian women, most of whom are employed as domestic helpers, before they are sent there. The demand is based on reported cases of abuse -- from slavery-like working conditions, torture to sexual abuse -- many Indonesian women workers suffer in the hands of their Arab employers.

Recognizing the contribution these hundreds of thousands of women make to the economy -- from the repatriated dollars to the easing of the tight labor market at home -- few people would argue for a permanent halt to sending women workers to Saudi Arabia, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. A temporary freeze to sort these problems out, however, is merited in view of these reported incidents.

The women NGOs are asking that the government make some kind of arrangement with the Saudi Arabian government to ensure that these women are adequately protected against such abuses and that they have a legal recourse when something bad does happen to them. The NGOs argue that the government has an obligation to ensure that the women are well-equipped and trained and are thoroughly informed of their rights before they leave the country.

While these demands are valid and reasonable, one wonders whether or not the NGOs and their supporters, including First Lady Sinta and Minister Khofifah, have ever bothered to look at the fate of domestic helpers in our own backyard. Are the pembantu rumah tangga who work in big Indonesian cities adequately protected in the same way we are insisting women workers being sent to Saudi Arabia? Unfortunately, the answer is a big "no". Sadder even still, we have not heard of any NGOs speaking for them, let alone staging protests on their behalf.

Just because we hardly hear or read reports of abuses against pembantu in Indonesia, it does not mean that they do not happen. They do, much more frequently and just as violently than we care to admit. They rarely get reported by the media because they are common daily occurrences that are considered not as newsworthy as stories of Indonesian women being abused in Saudi Arabia, or because, like all domestic problems, they never leave the house.

If we are talking about minimum protection, these pembantu do not enjoy a single shred of legal support. There are no set contracts which spell out the rights and obligations that domestic helpers and their employers have to sign. With the exception of Jakarta, most other cities do not have bylaws regulating the employment of pembantu rumah tangga. One would even doubt if the bylaw in Jakarta is fully observed. Given the sorry state of Indonesia's judicial system, one could suspect that hardly any cases of abuse against domestic helpers, if they ever reached the court, were settled in favor of a pembantu.

Unless the NGOs, the First Lady and Minister Khofifah expand their current campaign to include domestic helpers in Indonesia, they will be accused of adopting a double standard. They could even be accused of racism for singling out the Arabs in their campaign.

There are bound to be many benevolent Arab employers as there are benevolent Indonesian employers, and there are bound to be bad ones in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Since no one can tell the good from the bad before hand, the best way to approach this is to ensure that women workers are adequately protected. If this is the objective of the NGOs' campaign, then they should also turn their attention to the fate of domestic helpers in Indonesia.

To the maids, most of whom left their rural villages in Java to avoid abject poverty, it makes no difference if they end up working in Jakarta, Riyadh, Singapore or Hong Kong. All they care about is that they make reasonably good money in return for honest work. The task of the NGOs and the government then, is to ensure they are well-protected wherever they choose to work.