The Diaspora of Indonesian Female Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia: A Case of Abuse and Mistreatment

Hestyn Rahmawaty working in her small shop

 

Abstract: Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s oil revenue-driven high GDP growth has led to an increase of Saudi women obtaining higher education and increasingly becoming employed in non-domestic sectors. However, because Saudi culture tends to rely on maids for domestic duties, a demand for non-Saudi nationals for domestic work rose exponentially—to satisfy the labour vacuum left behind by the elevating status of Saudi women. The Indonesian government took advantage of such employment trend; the state encouraged the export of female domestic workers to Saudi Arabia as part of its economic plan to shrink its unemployment rate, while increasing its foreign exchange and remittances to boost its GDP growth and reduce its deficits. By 1994, there were 120,969 Indonesian women in Saudi Arabia employed as domestic workers. However, along with such increases, an unfortunate trend has been on the rise: cases of abuse, inadequate work conditions, and legal injustices against these women have been rampant. This paper uncovers and examines the push factors that led to such mistreatment towards these workers in Saudi Arabia.

Keywords: Domestic Work; Kafala; Kafeel; Kodrat; Remittance; Victim Narrative

Introduction

The diaspora of female Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia has repeatedly garnered the attention of the international press due to the staggering revelations of mistreatment these workers face in the Arab state. As recently as April 2015, Stinah B. J. Ahmad, an Indonesian maid that ended up killing her Saudi employer out of self-defence back in 2007, was placed on death row; she was scheduled to be beheaded unless a bail of USD $2 million was paid to the Saudi state.[1] Ahmad’s case is not uncommon. In the same month, the Saudi state beheaded an Indonesian maid for allegations similar to that of Ahmad’s case: homicide out of self-defence.[2] As of 2015, 236 Indonesian maids have been sentenced to death row.[3] Such phenomenon indicates the seriousness of the risk and injustice that entail from being employed as a maid in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, a proper investigation as to why these workers continue to face abuse and mistreatment is critical to ensure their safety in the future. This paper centres on Rachel Silvey’s theory that gender-specific relations and norms are constitutive of, rather than coincidental to, states and their policies. Silvey’s theory is employed as a theoretical framework to argue that a combination of both (a) gender and class-specific norms and discourses constructed by the Indonesian state to aid its economic development, and (b) the weak migration apparatus in both Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have collectively led to the abuse and inadequate work conditions the female Indonesian workers face in Saudi Arabia.[4] This paper first enlightens on why there is such high demand for non-Saudi maids in Saudi Arabia, and the size of the domestic work industry in the country. Following the explanation, the first argument discusses the gender and class-specific norms the Indonesian government has actively constructed to capture its economic goals. To expand on this point, the second argument illustrates the victim narrative promoted by the Indonesian state—which dichotomously frame mistreated workers as either deserving or undeserving of their ill-fate. The state also portrays the workers’ safety and well-being as a self-responsibility, rather than as a responsibility of the state. Lastly, this paper examines the weak migration rules and regulations in both Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Collectively, these state-constructed sociocultural norms, narratives, and weak regulatory bodies have disenfranchised domestic workers, thus, increasing their vulnerability to abuse and inadequate work conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Historical Context

This section illustrates the historical events and economic conditions that led to the high demand for non-Saudi domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Since the 1970s, the Saudi Kingdom has experienced oil-revenue driven high-GDP growth,[5] a shortage of Saudi nationals in its labour market, and an increase in Saudi women obtaining higher education and becoming employed in non-domestic sectors.[6] Because household duties are carried out predominantly by maids in Saudi culture, these factors have increased the demand for non-Saudi domestic workers.[7] By 1983, as Saudi Arabia was experiencing changes in its employment trends, the Indonesian state simultaneously started to integrate labour export into its economic development plans. Agencies were permitted to recruit women to work in Saudi Arabia as maids. This was intended to shrink Indonesia’s unemployment rate, while new streams of foreign exchange and remittances were to boost Indonesia’s GDP growth and reduce the country’s deficits.[8] The Saudis benefited from Indonesia’s new economic strategy as well: the new labour export satisfied the labour vacuum left behind by the elevating status of Saudi women at low costs.[9] Labour regulatory loosening in 1983 immediately led 55,976 Indonesians, both men and women, to work in the Arab state.[10] By 1989, this number had quadrupled to 223,576, and by 1994, it had risen to 384,822.[11] Of the 384,822 labourers, over a third were women employed in domestic service.[12] As demonstrated, economic developments in both Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have led to the influx and diaspora of female Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia.

The Indonesian Government’s Construction of Gender and Class-Specific Norms

To facilitate the remittance-driven economic growth, the Indonesian government has actively constructed and promoted gender and class-specific norms to encourage lower class women to work overseas as domestic workers. However, such encouragement did not entail labour security and safety for the women who decided to work overseas. Consequently, mistreatment towards these workers has been rampant. According to the Islamic discourse of “Kodrat,” men are to serve as breadwinners, while women are to devote themselves as mothers and/or as wives. The women are expected to foster a stable, nurturing environment for their families.[13] Because Indonesia is a Muslim-dominant nation with 87.14 percent of its population self-identifying as Muslim,[14] “Kodrat” is integrated into the national discourse. However, starting in the 1970s, the Indonesian government gradually abandoned “Kodrat”—rebranding the “ideal womanhood” as a woman who actively works in both the wage earning and domestic sphere.[15] If that meant overseas employment, it was tolerable; it satisfied the state definition of the “ideal womanhood.” The 1980s saw yet another change to “ideal womanhood” in Indonesia. The state’s idealized femininity now illustrated a woman who worked overseas for the sake of Indonesia’s economic growth.[16] These women were framed as the “heroes of national development.”[17] Critically, the 1980s definition of the “ideal womanhood” was both gender and class-specific. This is because it was the lower class women that predominantly travelled overseas to work, while very few middle and upper-class women did the same.

By the 1990s, the government had shifted its attention away from the lower class “remittance-sending women,” and started to cater towards the needs of the growing middle and upper-class women in the country.[18] The 1993 GBNH (Broads Outlines of State Policy) outlines gender equality not only as women’s access to equal employment opportunities, but also notes that men share a mutual responsibility as nurturers in their families.[19] However, the document failed to address the socioeconomic needs of lower class women. This is symbolically significant as domestic work overseas is almost exclusively sought by women from the lower class.[20] Therefore, the GBNH document marginalized these women at a state-level. In conjunction with the state-promoted norms that encourage these women to find employment overseas, these women were sent without the protection of state-enforced labour rules and regulations. Thus, for the Indonesian state, maintaining the influx of remittances was a higher priority than enforcing a more fair work environment. As a result, these workers’ safety and security became compromised in Saudi Arabia—which effectively led to their abuse and inadequate work conditions.

The Indonesian Government’s Promotion of the Victim Narrative

As previously noted, the Indonesian government portrays female domestic workers as “heroes of national development.” However, revelations of mistreatment have also portrayed them as victims of abuse—or as the “vulnerable female migrant worker” in the media.[21] This victim or “vulnerable migrant” narrative has been employed to hold the state accountable for its failure to ensure the safety of the workers.[22] Under the category of the “vulnerable migrant,” there exists a dichotomous classification of the victims: either (a) the innocent, moral victim, who has no control over her ill-fate, and deserves state help, or (b) the immoral victim, who deserves her ill-fate, and does not deserve the help.[23] And, it is the extent of their conformity to the state’s description of the “ideal female domestic worker” that determines which victim is what. The Ministry of Manpower indicates that the “ideal domestic worker” is a woman who works overseas not out of the “lure of high wages,” but to help her communities and the country; one who does not become extravagant; and one who resists the seduction of her employers. The Ministry explains that a worker who meets these criteria will return safely and successfully.[24] Critically, this is problematic for two reasons. It first reinforces the notion that their safety is a self-responsibility, not the responsibility nor duty of the government. This also immediately classifies victims who failed to conform with the “ideal worker” concept as immoral victims—without proper investigation of their individual cases. Consequently, such dichotomous classification discourages the workers from disclosing the mistreatment they faced to the authorities. This also conditions the public to reconsider their sympathies towards the victims—until they are proven to be the “moral victim.” This dichotomous framing of the “vulnerable migrant” has removed pressure from the authorities to conduct investigations into the allegations of mistreatment or even amend laws concerning migratory labour. Their legitimacy can be easily maintained by dismissing the abused “vulnerable migrant” as an “immoral victim.”

Further, such dichotomous classification along with the notion of self-responsibility are convenient for the government. This is because they help to (a) downplay the responsibility of the state for migrant safety and social welfare, (b) minimize the view that domestic work in Saudi Arabia is inherently risky or dangerous, and (c) allow the state to continue encouraging lower class women to work overseas. This is why the state reinforces the dichotomous classification of workers and the notion of self-responsibility. They do so specifically by falsifying the autopsy results of murdered maids to indicate accidents or natural illness, or not publicly disclosing that the workers placed on death row killed their employers in self-defence.[25] The state has repeatedly attempted to discredit domestic workers by framing rape victims as adulterers, or by saying that the worker went overseas to work with aspirations of wealth—neither of which legitimizes the mistreatment these workers faced. Critically, these discourses delude the realities of domestic work in Saudi Arabia, and increase the public’s tolerance for the lack of action ensuring the workers’ safety and security. The previous two arguments illustrated the norms and discourses that ultimately aimed to boost Indonesia’s economic growth, which has consequently made the workers more vulnerable to mistreatment. To expand on this point, the following examines the Indonesian and Saudi migratory apparatus, and how they seriously compromise the safety and security of the workers in Saudi Arabia.

The Indonesian and Saudi Arabian Migratory Apparatus

First, due to the Ministry of Manpower’s time-consuming and requirement-heavy application process,[26] many potential migrants opt for illegal migration channels.[27] The Ministry first requires all female applicants to be twenty-five or above, and a permission of leave from their husbands or parents.[28] Cases of agency employees requesting sexual favors in return for a more speedy application process have been frequent.[29] Because men do not face these problems, women disproportionately make up those who seek to work with unregistered migration brokers.[30] Critically, this perpetuates the existing privileges these brokers have: due to their unregistered status, the brokers are not bound by any law or regulations. Moreover, those who opt for these brokers are deceptively recruited under false terms and conditions about the expected work overseas. These potential migrants are also often unaware that their migration is illegal, or that their cooperation with an unregistered broker subverts the state’s migration apparatus.[31]

Antoinette Vilegar’s study on potential migrants and their knowledge of the expected work conditions in Saudi Arabia reveals that eighty percent of them were promised a salary of up to $210 USD per month.[32] The average monthly rate in Saudi Arabia for maids is $200 USD. However, this is not entirely true. A broker first persuades an employer to employ a maid on terms that the first three months of work will be salary-free since it is a probationary period. This arrangement is not disclosed to the worker. On the payday, the worker is not paid what she expects—three months’ salary.[33] Also, fifty-seven percent of Indonesian recruits were unaware that maids in Saudi Arabia work seven days per week. Even though their contracts outline the expected hours of work per day as 8–12 hours, the average is, in fact, seventeen hours.[34] These conditions prompt workers to opt for another employer or even depart Saudi Arabia. However, such moves are unlikely because entry to Saudi Arabia requires sponsorship by a Saudi citizen—otherwise known as the Kafala system. The Kafeel (or sponsor) is a Saudi national that offers the workers a legal entry to Saudi Arabia, and is solely responsible for her employment and residence. The Kafeel essentially assumes full control over the worker’s freedom of mobility and labour. Under this system, Kafeels are legally allowed to withhold passports to prevent escape from work.[35] This often leads maids to break their contracts—over seventy-five percent of them do so. Many flee from their employers to the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh, where an estimate of 300–400 women seek refuge per day.[36] As demonstrated, these rules and regulations do not offer safeguards to prevent or even prosecute cases of mistreatment. The fact that illegal migration channels and brokers operate freely is a testament to the weak enforcement or lack of migratory laws. The size of misinformed potential migrants also speaks to the dis-uniformity of information distributed by brokers. And, once the worker realizes that she was misinformed—or in fact, lied to—the Kafala system restricts her from legally leaving her post or finding another employer.

Conclusion

In retrospect, state-promoted and reinforced gender and class-specific norms and discourses exacerbate the workers’ vulnerability to mistreatment. This includes Indonesia’s push to recruit lower class women to work overseas, but simultaneously marginalizing them by not addressing their socioeconomic needs. The government also reinforces the dichotomous classification of victims and the notion of self-responsibility to downplay the state’s duty to ensure the workers’ safety. At the same time, the migration apparatuses of both countries fail to enforce labour rights or establish a safe work environment. The application process for potential migrants is also seriously inconvenient, thus encouraging women to opt for unregistered brokers. These brokers misinform potential migrants about the expected salaries and work commitments, and the Saudi Kafala system prevents them from willfully departing Saudi Arabia. Collectively, a conjunction of these listed factors led to the female Indonesian domestic workers’ vulnerability to the now ever-rampant mistreatment in Saudi Arabia.

Endnotes

Vlieger, Antoinette. “Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: Trafficking Victims?” International Migration 50, no. 6 (2012): 180–94. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2435.2012.00785.x.

[1] Iaccino, Ludovica. “#SaveSatinah: ‘Abused’ Indonesian Maid to be Beheaded in Saudi Arabia Unless Family Pays £1m.” International Business Times UK. March 24, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2015. www.ibtimes.co.uk/

savesatinah-abused-indonesian-maid-be-beheaded-saudi-arabia-unless-family-pays-1m-1441598.

[2] “Saudi Arabia executes Indonesian woman with suspected mental illness.” Saudi Arabia executes Indonesian woman with suspected mental illness. April 14, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2017. www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2015/04/saudi-arabia-executes-indonesian-woman-with-suspected-mental-illness/.

[3] It should be noted that all domestic workers referred in this paper are female Indonesian nationals, and, the term “domestic worker” is used interchangeably with the term “maid.”

[4] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 248.

[5] Silvey, Rachel. “Consuming the transnational family: Indonesian migrant domestic workers to Saudi Arabia.” Global Networks 6, no. 1 (2006): 27.

[6] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 253.

[7] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 255.

[8] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 247.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Silvey, Rachel. “Consuming the transnational family: Indonesian migrant domestic workers to Saudi Arabia.” Global Networks 6, no. 1 (2006): 28.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6955.

[14] “2010 Population Census by Region and Religion (Indonesia).” Badan Pusat Statstik. Accessed November 20, 2015.

[15] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6955.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 252.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6959.

[22] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6953.

[23] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6959.

[24] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6956.

[25] Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6960.

[26] Hugo, Graeme. “Labour Export from Indonesia: An Overview.” Asean Economic Bulletin 12, no. 2 (1995): 275–298.

[27] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 251.

[28] Spaan, Ernst. “Labour circulation and socioeconomic transformation: the case of East Java, Indonesia.” The Hague: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, 1999.

[29] Tagaroa, Rusdi, and Encop Sofia. “Buruh migran Indonesia mencari keadilan (Indonesian Migrant Workers: Searching for Justice).” Bekasi: Solidaritas Perempuan, Lembaga Advokasi Buruh Migran Indonesia (Migrant Workers Advocacy Institute—Women’s Solidarity), 1999.

[30] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 251.

[31] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 256.

[32] Vlieger, Antoinette. “Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: Trafficking Victims?” International Migration 50, no. 6 (2012): 185.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Vlieger, Antoinette. “Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates: Trafficking Victims?” International Migration 50, no. 6 (2012): 186.

[35] Jarallah, Yara. “Domestic Labor in the Gulf Countries.” Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 7, no. 1 (2009): 8.

[36] Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 256.


Bibliography

“2010 Population Census by Region and Religion (Indonesia).” Badan Pusat Statstik. Accessed November 20, 2015. sp2010.bps.go.id/index.php/site/tabel?tid=321&wid=0.

Chan, Carol. “Gendered Morality and Development Narratives: The Case of Female Labor Migration from Indonesia.” Sustainability 6, no. 10 (2014): 6949–972. doi:10.3390/su6106949.

Hugo, Graeme. “Labour Export from Indonesia: An Overview.” Asean Economic Bulletin 12, no. 2 (1995): 275–. doi:10.1355/ae12-2k.

Jarallah, Yara. “Domestic Labor in the Gulf Countries.” Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 7, no. 1 (2009): 3–15. doi:10.1080/15562940802687132.

Iaccino, Ludovica. “#SaveSatinah: ‘Abused’ Indonesian Maid to be Beheaded in Saudi Arabia Unless Family Pays £1m.” International Business Times UK. March 24, 2014. Accessed November 20, 2015. www.ibtimes.co.uk/savesatinah-abused-indonesian-maid-be-beheaded-saudi-arabia-unless-family-pays-1m-1441598.

“Saudi Arabia executes Indonesian woman with suspected mental illness.” Saudi Arabia executes Indonesian woman with suspected mental illness. April 14, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2017. www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2015/04/saudi-arabia-executes-indonesian-woman-with-suspected-mental-illness/.

Silvey, Rachel. “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia.” Political Geography 23, no. 3 (2004): 245–64. doi:10.1016/j.polgeo.2003.12.015.

Silvey, Rachel. “Consuming the transnational family: Indonesian migrant domestic workers to Saudi Arabia.” Global Networks 6, no. 1 (2006): 23–40. doi:10.1111/j.1471-0374.2006.00131.x.

Spaan, Ernst. “Labour circulation and socioeconomic transformation: the case of East Java, Indonesia.” The Hague: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, 1999.

Tagaroa, Rusdi, and Encop Sofia. “Buruh migran Indonesia mencari keadilan (Indonesian Migrant Workers: Searching for Justice).” Bekasi: Solidaritas Perempuan, Lembaga Advokasi Buruh Migran Indonesia (Migrant Workers Advocacy Institute—Women’s Solidarity), 1999.


 

Daniel C. Park is an alumnus of the University of Toronto who double majored in International Relations and Political Science.

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