The Jakarta Post, Jakarta|Wed, 07/09/2008 10:48 AM|Headlines
Working conditions for migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia -- including thousands of Indonesian workers -- sometimes amount to "slavery", according to a global human rights watchdog.
"In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they're treated like virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
But the rise of a "young, reformist elite" in Saudi Arabia offers opportunities for change -- opportunities labor advocates and countries that send migrant labor, such as Indonesia, should take advantage of, according to HRW executive director Kenneth Roth.
He said the new generation did not want the country to be known as one that "closes its eyes to the abuse of domestic workers".
Roth and Varia presented the findings of HRW's latest study in a discussion Monday, hosted by the National Commission on Violence against Women.
The study, "As if I am not human: Abuses against Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia", involved interviews with Indonesian, Filipino, Nepalese and Sri Lankan workers in the kingdom, conducted between 2006 and early 2008.
Indonesia has been sending migrant workers, mainly maids, to the Middle East and other regions since the 1980s, and media reports of abuse have repeatedly surfaced.
The Saudi embassy did not reply to requests Monday to respond to the study.
The study quotes from HRW's interview with Saudi labor minister Ghazi al-Qusaibi, who said "radical reforms" were being planned to establish better protection for migrant domestic workers.
But according to Varia, "the Saudi government has some good proposals for reform but it has spent years considering them without taking any action".
Reform for the kingdom's 1.5 million domestic workers is needed "so that women desperate to earn money for their families don't have to gamble with their lives", Varia said.
One of HRW's recommendations is to reform or abolish the sponsorship system known as kafala, which ties migrant workers' visas to their employers. This system means employers can prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country.
Reform is also needed in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system, HRW said. The study found in many cases employers were not prosecuted for abusing domestic workers.
HRW cited the example of abused Indonesian worker Nour Miyati, who lost her case despite "the employer's confession, ample medical evidence, and intense public scrutiny".
Nour Miyati had to have her fingers and toes amputated as a result of being starved and beaten daily by her employers, HRW said.
The maids "are more likely to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft or adultery", the study said.
But tight competition among labor suppliers is leading to cost cutting at the expense of migrant workers, according to one Indonesian official.
"Some labor suppliers are complaining they don't make profits and have had to cut expenses such as training," Jumhur Hidayat, head of the National Labor Export and Protection Agency, said Monday.
Jumhur said some suppliers cut the mandatory 200 hours of training for migrants scheduled to work in the Middle East "to one hour, or even 10 minutes".
He said a number of measures, including ongoing negotiations with the Saudi government, were being taken to address the problems.
Legislator Tuti Lukman remarked that while it was easy to blame the problems on the countries that receive Indonesian labor, "they will note that we also fail to give formal recognition and protection to our own domestic workers".
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