Indonesia’s moratorium on women traveling to work as domestic maids in the Middle East has failed to stem the flow of women who oftentimes end up in shocking conditions.

Exploitative employers, recruitment agencies and brokers are using new methods to circumvent the law, which has been in place since 2015, a frontline non-government organization (NGO) worker told The News Lens International.

The moratorium was established amid outcry at the execution of two Indonesian women in Saudi Arabia and followed an earlier pledge from Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Theresia Iswarini is a Jakarta-based project manager with Hivos, a Dutch NGO, which, among a range of development programs, works to help maids in the Middle East. Iswarini says that while the moratorium does not prohibit women returning to jobs, of the more than 2,000 women the NGO surveyed leaving Jakarta to work in the Middle East since the new law came into force, about 40 percent were going for the first time.

Iswarini notes that the moratorium has slowed the flow of women to the region, but she stresses that new problems are emerging.

“The number is going down, but the quality of migration process is very, very bad.”

The moratorium, Iswarini says, has not curbed a “deep” human trafficking problem nor stopped worker abuse.

Instead, the network of recruiters, brokers and employers – in both Indonesia and countries in the Middle East – have moved to a new “modus operandi,” she says.

Among the new tactics, Middle East employment agencies are now calling themselves “cleaning services” – essentially they are running the same domestic maid recruitment operations, but the new legal status gets around the moratorium.

Despite the change in terminology, “it is still exploitation,” Iswarini says.

Employers in the Middle East are increasingly contracting with Indonesians workers directly – which additionally makes it harder for officials and NGOs to monitor their whereabouts once they are in the Middle East, and often leads to situations where women owe heavy debts to illegal brokers in Indonesia. Women are also entering some countries, like Saudi Arabia, on visas for religious purposes, but are staying on to work.

Demonstrators from the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) shout slogans and hold placards during a protest outside Saudi Arabia's embassy in New Delhi, India, September 10, 2015. India's foreign ministry summoned Saudi Arabia's ambassador over allegations one of the Middle East country's officials repeatedly raped two Nepali maids. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - RTSGQK

Uphill battle to stay connected

Of the more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide, about 83 percent are women and 17.2 million are under the age of 17, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the Middle East, where one in three female wage workers is a maid, more than 80 percent of the migrant domestic workers come from Southeast Asia, with Indonesia and the Philippines the prominent source countries, according to Hivos. The NGO says many workers face “deception, abuse and isolation,” as well as “poor working conditions, physical and sexual abuse, bonded labor and human trafficking.”

Hivos has since 2014 run a project, Shelter Me, aimed at helping and monitoring Indonesian migrant maids in the Middle East. The project provides advice and resources to women leaving Jakarta, and tries to stay in communication once they start work. In addition to advocacy work, it also works with other organizations, recruitment companies, employers and official agencies in the Middle East.

While the project has had some success in connecting with women before they depart Indonesia, maintaining on-going communication can be “very difficult,” Iswarini says. The organization has tried to maintain communication with the many “isolated” maids, whose only connection to the outside world may be via an “old” cellular phone – without Internet capability.

However, in many cases this has not been possible.

“The fundamental problem is because the employer doesn’t allow the employee to have a phone, actually,” Iswarini says. “They are not connected to [their] family or the [Indonesian] government.”

Many Middle Eastern countries use a sponsorship program to manage foreign migrant workers – known as the kafala system – it requires workers gain an “exit visa” from their employer. According to the U.S. State Department this system has led to people being forced to work for years beyond their contract term because employers do not grant the visa.

Other laws in the Middle East – including, in some countries, Sharia Law – also restricts the NGO and its partners in their ability to track women down and expose cases of abuse. This is especially so when women face legal issues, as there may be tight controls around exactly who can visit prisoners. In many cases, Iswarini says, the NGOs are reliant on local authorities and Indonesia’s relevant agencies to step in.

Trafficking issues

The U.S. State Department, in its annual global human trafficking report this year, highlights ongoing issues related to migrant workers in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, home to many Indonesian migrant maids.

“The foreign worker population is the most vulnerable to trafficking in Saudi Arabia, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences,” the report says, also noting that the non-payment of wages and employers withholding workers’ passports is thought to be widespread.

Female domestic workers in Qatar are likewise “particularly vulnerable to trafficking” due to their isolation in private residences and lack of protection under Qatari labor laws, the report found.

Overseas workers in Qatar account for more than 90 percent of the oil-rich country’s total workforce. However, 76 percent of expatriate workers’ passports are in their employers’ possession, despite laws against passport confiscation. However, this does reflect a decrease in passport retention since 2011, when more than 90 percent of expatriates reported employers retained their passports.

Still, there are signs that both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are making some progress in tackling issues faced by migrant workers. Qatar has undertaken to reform the kafala system and Saudi Arabia late last year opened a specialized anti-trafficking unit to protect migrant workers and train labor inspectors on victim identification.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole