Images of abused maid rattle Indonesia

2010-11-23 10:48
Sumiati from Indonesia lies in a bed at King Fahd hospital in Medina. She arrived in Saudi Arabia a high-spirited 23-year-old, eager to start work as a maid so she could help support her family back home. (Detik.com, AP)

Sumiati from Indonesia lies in a bed at King Fahd hospital in Medina. She arrived in Saudi Arabia a high-spirited 23-year-old, eager to start work as a maid so she could help support her family back home. (Detik.com, AP)

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Jakarta - She arrived in Saudi Arabia a high-spirited 23-year-old, eager to start work as a maid to help support her family back home. Four months later, Sumiati was Indonesia's poster child for migrant abuse, alone and staring vacantly from a hospital bed, her face sliced and battered.

But while public anger has forced President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government to acknowledge the problem for the first time, few expect any firm action to be taken.

Gruesome images snapped of Sumiati, now recovering in the Saudi city of Medina, have been splashed on the front pages of local newspapers and led television newscasts for more than a week.

Her employer - who has been taken in for questioning by police - is accused of cutting off part of her lips with scissors, scalding her back with an iron, fracturing her middle finger, and beating her legs until she could hardly walk.

"It's hardly the first such case," said Wahyu Susilo, a policy analyst at Indonesia's advocacy group, Migrant Care. "Again and again we hear about slavery-like conditions, torture, sexual abuse and even death, but our government has chosen to ignore it. Why? Because migrant workers generate $7.5bn in foreign exchange every year."

Workers from Asian countries dominate service industries in the Middle East and there have been many reports of abuse - including allegations in recent days that an employer in Kuwait drove 14 metal pins into the body of a Sri Lankan maid.

'Tip of the iceberg'

"The wanton brutality alleged in these cases is shocking," said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called on authorities to investigate claims promptly and bring those responsible to justice.

She and others called cases like that of Sumiati the "tip of the iceberg".

But countries that export labour have a responsibility as well, Nisha said.

Though Indonesia sends more than 6.5 million workers abroad every year, it has drawn much criticism for failing - despite repeated promises - to ratify a 1990 UN convention on the protection of migrant workers. It also has not signed a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia that would give workers a legal basis to challenge employers.

But Oon Kurniaputra, an adviser to Indonesia's Minister of Manpower and Transmigration, argued on Tuesday that the problem is not the fault of governments.

Public relations disaster


It is with profit-hungry recruitment agencies that lure young men and women overseas without ensuring their safety when they get there, he said.

Sumiati's case prompted President Yudhoyono to call a Cabinet meeting late last week to discuss ways in which the government could - and would - do more.

It turned out to be a public relations disaster.

It emerged during the talks that another Indonesian maid, 36-year-old Kikim Komalasari, had allegedly been tortured to death by her Saudi employer, her body found in a trash bin on November 11 in the town of Abha.

"It's shocking to hear this ... it's beyond inhumane," said Yudhoyono, as the government sent a team of diplomats to the scene to investigate. "I want the law to be upheld and to see an all-out diplomatic effort."

Some lawmakers suggested a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, something that is considered unlikely given the close economic and political ties between the predominantly Muslim countries.

Little understanding

It also comes at a sensitive time, with hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in Saudi Arabia performing in the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Yudhoyono, meanwhile, had a proposal of his own: Give all migrant workers cell phones so they can call family members or authorities if they need help.

"It just shows how little he understands the problems domestic workers abroad are facing," scoffed Rieke Dyah Pitaloka, an opposition lawmaker who is dealing with labour and domestic workers affairs.

"Their employers are locking them up and taking away their passports ... they aren't going to let them keep a phone."

Most people believe little will change until girls are better educated and prepared for better jobs in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic nation of 237 million people, where the average wage is less than $300 a month.

Sumiati, a recent high school graduate from a fishing village on Sumbawa Island, was bouncing with enthusiasm when she left for Saudi Arabia on July 18 with the help of a local recruitment agency, according to family and friends.

Hysterical

She saw it as a chance to be able to help her three younger siblings through school.

When the family - together with the rest of the country - first saw the cell phone picture of their little girl on television, they "went crazy".

"Her mother ... started crying hysterically and lost consciousness," Sumiati's uncle, Zulkarnain, was quoted as saying in the English-language The Jakarta Globe.

When they got Sumiati on telephone in the hospital, she said in a voice almost unrecognisable: "Please come in the form of angels and take me back home to my village."

- AP
Read more on:    indonesia  |  saudi arabia
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