After Beheading, Indonesia Bars Maids from Work in Saudi Arabia

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Irwan Setiawan, along with his sister Evi Kurniati, holds a picture of his mother, Ruyati Binti Sapubi, in their house in Bekasi, West Java Province June 19, 2011. (Reuters)

A woman, beheaded by the sword thousands of miles from home. This, at last, proved too much for Indonesia. For years, this Southeast Asian nation has been sending its citizens to work in Saudi Arabia and, for years, migrant workers there complained of poor working conditions, abuse and violence. But the surprise execution of Ruyati binti Sapubi, a 54-year old maid accused of killing her female employer, seems to have shocked the country into action. Indonesian authorities, who say Ruyati was routinely abused, are outraged they were not informed of the sentence.  They announced on Thursday that Indonesia will stop sending maids to the kingdom — at least for now.

The outcry over Ruyati’s life and death in Saudi Arabia has cast a rather bright light on what is all-too-often dismissed as a private matter: the use and abuse of foreign domestic workers. A vast body of research confirms what we all basically know — there are literally millions of people, mostly women, working in others people’s houses. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are 1.5 million foreign domestic workers. Many enjoy decent conditions. Many do not.

Saudi Arabia is a dangerous place for far too many foreign domestic workers. In 2008, a Human Rights Watch report documented widespread abuse of Asian maids in Saudi households. The organization found that women were routinely subjected to wretched working conditions, as well as emotional, sexual and physical abuse. “She beat me until my whole body burned. She beat me almost every day,” one Indonesian woman told them. “She would beat my head against the stove until it was swollen.” Since most maids are housebound and far from home, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get help. If they do seek aid, the system is stacked against them, activists say.  

Unfortunately, this is not just a Saudi Problem — it’s a global one. In March, I wrote about a similar dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia. After several high-profile acts of violence against domestic workers, Indonesia was forced to stop women from seeking work as maids in Malaysia. The problem, as I noted then, is that barring Indonesian women from working in Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia, doesn’t, in itself, force host countries to reform. Rather, as in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, the reduction in the number of Indonesian migrants opened the market to women from poorer countries like Cambodia.

Eventually, Malaysia agreed to prosecute some of its worst offenders, including a woman who assaulted her housemaid with scissors and a hammer. This type of legal and diplomatic pressure is an important first step.  To this end, International Labor Organization (ILO), recently passed the first-ever convention on the rights of domestic workers. The document affirms domestic workers’ rights to a minimum wage, a weekly day off and a limit to their working hours. It also obliges governments to protect then from violence. However, in order for the convention to be binding, countries must adopt it — and not all will.  And, as I’ve written before, fair laws do not guarantee fair treatment. Until ‘house work’ is valued and female workers are treated with dignity, foreign domestic workers will continue to suffer.