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Indonesia vs Saudi Arabia: The maid issue

March 30, 2013   ·   2 Comments


The treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia especially domestic workers or maids has been a long standing issue. More migrant workers are executed in Saudi Arabia than in any other country. According to human rights groups, more than 45 Indonesian women are on death row.

Several NGOs believe that the exact number of foreign domestic workers on death row is almost certainly higher since the Saudi authorities do not publish official figures. Although the majority of the women are Indonesian, there are also Filipina, Indian, Ethiopian and Thai maids facing the death penalty.

Furthermore, they are also subjected to arrests on sham charges of theft, assault and even witchcraft. Often victims of rape and sexual violence are accused of adultery and fornication.  Indonesian Association for Migrant Workers sovereignty, a human rights group recorded over 5, 560 reports of physical and sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia in 2010 alone.

A weak legal infrastructure combined with a lack of legal rights has made access to justice remote. Many foreign workers have no way of defending themselves due to the lack of access to lawyers and translators. Entire trials are conducted in Arabic and many are prevented from contacting their embassies. Lack of proper investigations and legal proceedings allow abusers to escape justice.

Saudi labour laws exclude domestic workers denying them rights guaranteed to other workers such as overtime pay and days off. A sponsorship (kafala) system ties the workers to their employers meaning the employer has complete control over the workers’ ability to change occupation or to even leave the country. Their passports are confiscated to prevent any attempts to escape.

Repeated requests from Indonesia for improved working conditions have been ignored by the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia has fallen out of favour with several Asian nations including Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The execution of Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek caused international outcry despite numerous appeals for clemency by the Sri Lankan government, Rizana was beheaded on 9th January 2013.  The maid agency altered Rizana’s birth date in order to allow her to work in the Gulf. Rizana who was only a minor when she arrived in Saudi Arabia was assaulted and coerced into signing a confession admitting she strangled the infant under her care. Sri Lanka no longer permits anyone under the age of 25 to work abroad.

In June 2011, Indonesia banned domestic workers from travelling to the Kingdom for work following Riyadh’s failure to notify the Indonesian embassy of the execution of Ruyati binti Saputi, who was convicted for beating her employer’s wife to death with a meat cleaver. Saudi Arabia retaliated by enforcing its own ban on the recruitment of domestic workers from Indonesia. At the time of the ban, there were still over 1.5 million Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia.

The Indonesian government has called on Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement which will protect the rights of migrant workers. Terms of the new agreement include work and health insurance, a minimum pay of 4.5 million Rupiah (£305) per month, receive sick pay and adequate time off. If the Saudis refuse, Indonesia will continue with the ban and the Saudis say they will refuse to sign the deal if Indonesia continues to interfere in court cases involving Indonesian citizens.

The only resolution to this issue is that Saudi Arabia signs the new agreement with Indonesia and ensures workers’ basic rights are protected. It needs to implement mechanisms that regular monitor employers and employment conditions and create shelters for abused maids. Jakarta has stipulated that special courts should be established to address disputes involving Indonesians. Even Lebanon, the UAE and Kuwait have taken steps to improve labour laws and working conditions.

Prominent Cases

Satinah binti Jumadi was convicted of killing her employer, Noura al-Gharib during an argument. Satinah was only allowed to inform her family about her conviction 3 years after she had been sentenced to death.

Despite ample medical evidence and a confession, Nour Miyati’s employer was never charged. Nour had her toes and fingers amputated as a result of starvation and daily beatings.

Tuti Tursilawati binto Warjuki murdered her employer when he attempted to rape her.

In 2010, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa was hospitalised with broken bones and burns to her face and body. Despite the Indonesian President’s demand for justice, Sumiati’s employer was acquitted due to insufficient evidence.

The body of Kikim Komalasari was found dumped by a roadside in 2010. Her neck had been slashed and her body was covered in cuts. Her employers were arrested and investigations are still on-going.

Relations have been strained between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, however it is expected that the Kingdom will eventually sign the agreement and resume recruitment. Prince Khalid Bin Saud Bin Khalid has pledged to “protect the rights of both Saudi employers and foreign workers.” Talks are still continuing between the two countries and are optimistic an agreement will be reached.

Photo credit: AJstream

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Gaanashree Wood

Asia editor at the World Outline. Gaanashree has a postgraduate diploma in Legal Practice (LPC) from the College of Law. She also holds a LLB (Law) and LLM in Public International law from University of Leicester and has a BSc in political science from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her main interests are South East Asian politics, foreign policy and women’s rights. She is currently working for various non-profit organisations specialising in conflict resolution and refugee aid.




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