22 September 2010

» Home » The Jakarta Post » Complications for Indonesia’s unskilled migrant workers

Complications for Indonesia’s unskilled migrant workers

The migrant worker issue is complicated for many reasons. Indonesian domestic workers in the United Arab Emirate (UAE), for example, must adjust to the different social and cultural settings of that country. It has also been a “struggle” to bring the government in the UAE to a bilateral agreement on migrant worker protection. The UAE government has appeared powerful and “untouchable” when it comes to discussing the migrant worker issue.
It is important we understand the macro sociocultural and legal context that has caused migrant workers to be ill-treated. The following data was gathered from research on Indonesian domestic workers in the UAE by the Center for Women and Gender Studies (PKWJ) and the University of Indonesia, with support from the International Development Research Center (IDRC).

The UAE is a country benefiting from an oil boom. With its population of 4 million in 2010, 85 percent of people living in the UAE are foreign nationals and migrant workers. The high demand for migrant domestic workers is related to its rapid economic development. With higher education, more women are entering the labor market. Consequently families are seeking household assistance. Having domestic workers has become a status symbol, and a means to acquiring higher social status and prestige (Al-Najjar, 2004).
Ironically, domestic workers tend to be mistreated in the UAE. A portrait of injustice is characteristic of the mistreatment domestic workers face there. There is no specific law regulating such employment.
The absence of law relates to how domestic work is perceived socially and culturally. Domestic work is seen as an informal work, dirty work and separate from business and professional work. The portrait of injustice also resembles the fact that domestic workers do not have legal knowledge in terms of protection of their rights as part of access to justice (Irianto, 2010).
The portrait of injustice is visible from their place of origin. They were never trained and most of them never sign any contracts. Nor do they receive any information about who their employers will be, what tasks they will be doing or information on the culture, behavior and lifestyle of UAE society.
This lack of knowledge and information has had a detrimental impact on migrant workers. Migrant workers tend to experience culture shock, which causes many of them to eventually leave their employers. Running away has become a trend, and the reasons workers choose to run can be very simplistic. It is not necessarily a result of abuse or unpaid salaries, but for example can be a result of their employer being “talkative”, or workers not being allowed to have a boyfriend, or if the employer does not provide the worker with any soap. Without sufficient legal knowledge, domestic workers never realize the economic and legal consequences if they run away.
Running away has caused big problems not only for employers and sponsors, but also for the staff at the Indonesian Embassy. With such limited staff numbers, the embassy is overwhelmed with cases of “fleeing” maids, which has become a daily phenomenon.
However, it is “unfair” to see migrant workers as only victims of the system that has resulted in mistreatment in the UAE. Domestic workers are part of the problem as well. From what the UAE locals perceive, migrant workers are no more than “strategic agents”. In a few cases, the workers use domestic worker migration channels as a stepping stone, for example, to work as prostitutes since the money they earn in this profession are far higher than for being domestic workers.
Others blame domestic workers for running away as part of a “syndicated deal” with domestic sponsor, for profit reasons. In facing cases where workers run away, such reasoning is used by employers as justification for retaining workers’ passports and restricting their mobility.     
Still, the lack of justice continues in the UAE. Workers have to sign contracts written in Arabic, which most of them do not understand. Even if they had signed a contract from Indonesia, the contract would not be valid in the UAE. Thus, there is an issue of double contracts. From research findings, some examples of the mistreatment migrant workers face in the UAE include physical, verbal and sexual abuse, delayed payment, inadequate food, being forced to eat rotten food, extended working hours, the retention of passports, and false accusations leading workers to be stigmatized as criminals.
Another contributing factor to mistreatment relates to the phenomenon of xenophobia. There is a common fear that the UAE is losing its national identity because of the influx of migrant workers.
Domestic workers have been accused of having negative social, cultural and religious influences on their employers’ children. They have also been accused in family crimes and offenses. Sadly, domestic workers are much needed, but at the same time very often treated with suspicion and hatred.
From the research, the UAE society sees Indonesia as a “maid exporter”, which is reflected in poor treatment of Indonesian people there. In addition, Indonesian women are often stigmatized as “cheap” in the UAE.
Finally, the rapid economic development in UAE has direct link with rape and sexual harassment experienced by domestic workers there. This phenomena is described by Sabban (2001).
“Most complaints of sexual abuse reported by foreign domestic workers were against older men ... in the Emirates ... Their first source of pleasure is poor women, whose easier, cheaper and younger sexuality can alleviate their frustrations.”
The issue of Indonesian migrant domestic workers is a complex phenomenon. It is an organized, profitable business activity that involves many actors. Bringing justice to domestic workers requires work on multiple levels. Intervention is needed to equip domestic workers with legal knowledge and access to legal justice; to place tighter controls on their recruitment and to enforce laws throughout the process. The government needs to be more proactive in approaching the government in the UAE to bind them to a migrant worker protection deal. No less important is to propose a macro strategy in efforts to change common misperceptions about Indonesia in UAE society. Indeed, this is crucial to maintaining our country’s dignity.

Vidhyandika D. Perkasa, The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.
Opini The Jakarta Post 22 September 2010