1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Abused and overworked

June 27, 2011

Indonesian media outlets carry horrific stories about the abuse of domestic workers abroad almost every week, but many women from poorer Asian nations continue to leave home to seek work as maids and nannies.

Indonesia workers preparing to be sent to Saudi Arabia in June 2011
Thousands of migrant workers have taken jobs in households abroadImage: picture alliance/dpa

At dusk, as the call to prayer rings out, children draw in the dirt outside the Cimanggu village mosque in West Java. Almost all of their mothers are overseas. Nearby, 34-year old Sukaezi is sanding pieces of wood. The house he is building is being paid for with the money his wife sends home.

She went to Saudi Arabia two years ago, leaving him to take care of their teenage daughter. "In the beginning it was very hard," he said. "I have to be the mother and the father. But we have to do it because it's for our dream, to finish building our house and to put our kid through school."

Thousands of migrant workers from Indonesia cook, clean and look after someone else's children in wealthier nations like Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. The money they send home makes up about two percent of Indonesia's gross domestic product.

Indonesia migrant worker activists protest outside the Saudi embassy in Jakarta
The Indonesian government will no longer allow migrants to work in Saudi ArabiaImage: picture alliance/dpa

The situation has intensified recently. Last week, the Indonesian government decided it would no longer allow migrants to work in Saudi Arabia. Jakarta said the Saudi Arabian government did not notify it about plans to execute an Indonesian maid for killing her Saudi employer.

Abuse and struggle

The case of Elly Anitha illustrates how vulnerable these workers are. When she turned 18, Anitha was expected to go overseas to work and support her younger siblings.

"My father is only a farmer and my mother a housewife, and they had lots of children," she told Deutsche Welle. "I didn't want them to suffer because of this." So Anitha chose to go to Malaysia, because the language was not very different from Indonesian.

"After three months my employer, this man, started asking me all the time if I wanted to be his girlfriend," she said. "So I made the decision to go home."

But Anitha couldn't stay there for long. To pay off debts to her agent, who had paid for flight and visa documents, she made two trips to Hong Kong. Both times, she was underpaid and verbally abused and ended up taking her second employer to court.

She won the case, but her troubles did not end there. "I didn't return home that time because I had nothing to go home with," she said. "I felt pity for my sister, who would have to stop studying if I didn't work."

Anitha said she did not tell her family about her troubles. "I didn't want them to worry about me - I just wanted them to be happy," she said. "So I went to Bahrain because I heard that the salary deduction is low there."

Elly Anitha, inside the offices of Migrant Care in Jakarta
Elly Anitha, formerly a domestic worker abroad, now works for Migrant CareImage: Rebecca Henschke

A long way out

It was in Bahrain that things became even worse for Anitha. In the first household where she worked, the youngest son tried to rape her, and she ran away. Anitha then went to Dubai, where she was told she would work as a secretary.

But her boss there had other ideas. "On the second day, he slapped my face and he forced me to obey him saying, 'Open your clothes.' I said, 'I am not a dog. I will never obey you, donkey,'" she said.

"He locked the door from the inside and came towards me. I spat in his face and grabbed some scissors and said, 'You come closer and either you or I will die.' I counted to three and he left."

Angered by her refusal to obey him, her boss said he would send her to Kurdistan, which he told her was part of Italy. It was not until Anitha arrived and found some local bank notes at her agent's house that she realized she was in Iraq, in the middle of a war zone.

When she was caught trying to escape, she was beaten severely. But Anitha refused to give up, and after two years of lobbying to international labor groups and the Indonesian embassy via stolen mobile phones, her agent finally returned her passport.

She was greeted by various government ministers upon her arrival back in Jakarta.

Trapped in the sex trade

Anitha now works for a local rights group called Migrant Care. She travels across the country to tell her story and warn others. There are an estimated five million Indonesians currently working abroad. Foreign ministry records show that on average, six Indonesian migrants die daily, and most are migrant workers.

Anitha often visits Indramayu, a satellite suburb of the capital that is notorious for human trafficking. She said women here are often told by agents that they will work as domestic helpers. They are ultimately sold into the sex trade.

Yulianti lives here in Indramayu. Five years ago, she said a friend told her that there was a housemaid's job she could have in Malaysia. When she arrived, she was forced into sex work in a brothel seven nights a week, and paid nothing.

When Yulianti managed to flee to the Indonesian embassy, she was hospitalized for two weeks. “I had to go through surgery. I couldn't stand it, I almost died I was bleeding so heavily," she said.

Despite the horrific experience her daughter has gone through, Yulianti's mother, Masroh, hopes her daughter can go overseas again to earn money for the family. "Other people's daughters can go overseas and work," Masroh said. "I want my daughter to be able to do that.”

A group of Indonesian domestic workers studying in Singapore
The money earned by female migrant workers goes to their families back homeImage: picture alliance/ANN/The Jakarta Post

A vital role

The social pressure on migrant workers to succeed for their family is incredibly intense. The money they send back pays for homes and school fees, and helps support their elderly parents.

Back at Cimanggu in West Java, 15-year-old Siti Patima is playing with her young sister in front of their house. Like many women in the village, their mother has been overseas for eight years, returning only for short holidays.

"It is really hard," Siti said. "I have to do everything alone in the morning - make breakfast alone and go to school by myself." But she sees is as a sacrifice for her future. If it weren't for her dream to attend school, Siti said she would not let her mother go away.

"I want to become a doctor to help people," she said. "That's a very expensive dream and my mum does not want to destroy my dream."

Author: Rebecca Henschke (bk, arp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

Skip next section Explore more