Indonesian workers victimised abroad kept in custody to hush up abuses

Despite tens of thousands of cases of abuse to maids working abroad, from physical injury to rape, the Indonesian government is keen to ramp up a business that brings in an estimated $11bn a year to the country in remittances.

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JAKARTA // In a locked unit of a run-down hospital in east Jakarta, Ikayani Arjati paced her empty cell. Her hair wildly askew, she shouted over and over again, "Allahu akbar!"

Along with 30 other women, Ms Arjati is being held in the Ebony Room at the Doctor Sukanto Police Hospital, a ward for female domestic workers who have been physically or sexually abused by foreign employers.

Her deformed and blackened ears, impaired hearing and the other scars on her body bear witness to a horrible trauma, one that she says was inflicted by her Saudi employers when they doused her with an industrial cleaning agent.

"Look at my hands, this is what they did to me. They splashed me. Look at my ear. I can't hear very well," she told a visitor.

Ms Arjati is one of the thousands of Indonesians who are cheated, beaten, raped, and tortured by their employers abroad each year, according to the government agency that oversees migrant labour.

As the biggest employers of Indonesian migrant workers, Malaysian bosses have a widespread reputation for viciousness.

But after the case of Sumiati binti Salan Mustapa, the maid who was hospitalised in Medina last autumn for treatment of burns caused by an iron, and gashes to her face and lips caused by scissors, Saudi employers are now viewed as the cruellest.

"We know that the culture in Saudi Arabia is very bad. It is a culture of slavery and they have no respect for human rights," says Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care, a non-government organization representing migrant workers.

Saudi employers were the subject of more than half of the complaints from Indonesian workers between January and June last year, said the government oversight agency, officially known as the National Board for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers.

Of the 25,064 workers who reported problems with their employers on returning to Indonesia, 13,559 - 54 per cent - had worked in Saudi Arabia, the group said. Overall, more than one million Indonesians are working legally in the Kingdom.

When Ms Mustapa's Saudi Arabian employer was initially sentenced to three years in jail, the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, urged publicly for tougher punishment.

The employer's acquittal on Saturday aroused public outrage. But the official response in Indonesia is likely to be restrained.

Rather than deal with the abuses with tougher regulation, the government is keen to ramp up a business that brings in an estimated US$11 billion (Dh40bn) a year to Indonesia in remittances and also returns big profits to the companies that send the women overseas.

That means that Ebony Room of the Doctor Sukanto Police Hospital will probably not be empty soon.

Although recruiting agencies and insurance companies are meant to foot the treatment bill for abused domestic workers, the facilities of the hospital, which also treats convicted terrorists and common criminals, are crude, even by local standards.

Except for the nurse's station and five cells, each equipped with bed, nightstand and a television, there is little else in the Ebony Room.

The hospital relies on donations to feed patients. A local charity supplies toiletries. There are no staff trained to deal with trauma.

Some of the women have been in the hospital for months and are desperate to leave, but the authorities strictly control not only when they are discharged but who can and cannot visit.

"Do you have a phone? I want to call my family, I want them to take me home," said Ms Arjati, rushing over to a visitor. "I'm not mad."

Several other women, skinny and marked by old wounds, ask for the same assistance.

The hospital handles only the most acute cases of abuse and trauma. All returning Indonesian overseas workers are processed by immigration officials at a terminal at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta international airport.

If it is determined that a returning worker needs treatment, he or she is transferred immediately to the facility. Admission is not optional.

All complaints of abuse are recorded and later analysed by the government's oversight agency, but follow-up on less acute problems is rare. Families and independent monitoring groups are barred access. "The government doesn't want anyone watching," said Jamaluddin Suryahadikusuma, an official with the Migrant Workers' Union (SBMI).

Authorities insist the rules are meant to prevent workers, flush with gifts and cash, from being preyed upon by criminal gangs.

"We have to sterilize the area," to prevent gangs who "go there and ask them for money," said Jumhur Hidayat, the chief of the government oversight agency.

Yet workers who have been through the terminal and non-government organisations that represent them say workers are often twice-abused - both abroad by employers and at home by profiteers.

From the porters who move their luggage to the extortionate plane and bus fares out of the terminal, and the poor exchange rates they are given by money changers, the workers are fleeced for everything in their pockets. "From the time their plane lands, they are forced to pay. It's a business mafia there," Mr Suryahadikusuma said.

Despite the risks, Indonesians continue to seek work overseas, lured by the promise of better wages. A government survey promotes overseas work with the claim that factory labourers, farmers, builders, shopkeepers or maids who earned about $50 a month in Indonesia can earn $200 a month or more overseas.

But when the promise of more money turns out false, many return overseas, attributing their bad experiences to misfortune rather than the vagaries of a largely unregulated industry.

Andrea Asard, 23, had just returned home empty-handed from Jordan after 18 months working for a verbally abusive boss who gave her no time off.

"I'm hoping that I will have a nicer boss next time," she said.