Noorashikin Abdul Rahman
Women constitute seventy per cent of the estimated four million migrant workers who come from Indonesia. Their voices must be heard. Only by listening to their voices can we see that these women are after all individuals, with their own aspirations and potential.
Most of them work as live-in foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in households in the Middle East, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. The Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, has traditionally been a favourite destination for women migrant workers from Indonesia. But horrid tales of torture and abuse the women experienced there, exposed in the media in the early '90s and retold by ex-migrants, encouraged many aspiring migrants to reconsider their choice of destination. Proximity to Indonesia, a reasonably attractive exchange rate, and the relative freedom it offers, have made Singapore an increasingly popular destination for Indonesian FDWs.
'I chose Singapore because the exchange rate is much better than Malaysia. My friends who have worked in the Middle East advised me that it is less work here, as the houses are smaller. You also get more freedom because you can at least go to the market and send the children to school, unlike in Saudi where you are confined to the house all the time,' explained Sukinah, a 20 year-old who is on her first overseas assignment. Indonesian FDWs now comprise slightly more than half of the 150,000 foreign women who work as live-in domestic maids in Singapore. Hailing mostly from Java, they enter Singapore via Jakarta and Batam with the help of a network of labour recruiters and maid agents with links across international boundaries.
However, the factors underlying the discrimination they face are complex. They cannot be resolved with laws and protective policies alone. Many migrants have retired successfully to more comfortable homes, own bigger pieces of land, and support their children through university. Yet their lives are filled with hardship, and insults on their dignity are the norm. As foreigners and as women, they are viewed with suspicion and often patronised. As workers engaged in a low status job, they are treated with little respect and are hardly granted any of the rights workers are entitled to.
The exploitation begins even before the women leave Indonesian soil. Local entrepreneurs and bureaucrats conveniently overlook ministerial decrees meant to protect migrant workers in the recruitment process. Instead of ensuring that their rights as workers are defended, these people treat FDWs as a commodity that can be sold for a quick profit. Upon their return from overseas, the lack of protective laws leave them defenceless as more bureaucrats and middlemen appropriate their hard-earned money without any qualms. Stories of extortion at Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta airport are common. For example, returning Indonesian FDWs are often charged exorbitant fees for the trip back to their village by members of a transport mafia allegedly linked to corrupt officials in the Labour Department.
Nevertheless, institutional support is available and protective laws are in place in Singapore to catch maid abusers. Unlike in Hong Kong, where foreigners have the freedom to form unions and associations for collective bargaining, Singapore's advantage lies in its strict laws against abusive employers. In 1998, the penal code was amended to include a special clause for FDWs. Offences such as assault, grievous harm and 'outraging of modesty' inflicted against FDWs by employers now carry heavier penalties. The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore operates a help line that FDWs and other migrant workers can ring when encountering problems. The Ministry also has officers to help resolve conflicts over non-payment of salaries.
In addition to the Singapore government, the Indonesian embassy in Singapore has a special department for Indonesian domestic workers that oversees their welfare and helps negotiate settlements in times of crisis. Technically, all Indonesian FDWs should be brought to the embassy upon their arrival. There they are supposed to be protected under a legally binding work contract endorsed by the embassy that ensures rest days, standard salaries and adequate provisions for their well-being. In practice, though, it rarely happens.
Working in Singapore is, after all, not that bad. What then are the problems for FDWs in Singapore that cannot be addressed by such institutional formulae? The problem lies with social attitudes that are not easily dealt with by regulations. Life as a foreign domestic worker in Singapore is hard, despite its advantages.
In this modern and orderly city-state, FDWs are employed under a two-year renewable work permit in which strict conditions such as a six-monthly medical examination to screen for pregnancy and venereal diseases and a bar on marriage to locals apply. The penalty for breaching any of these conditions is repatriation and a permanent ban from working in the country.
The Employment Act does not apply to FDWs, because domestic work is not recognised as formal work. Most FDWs negotiate personal contracts with employers, mediated by maid agents. According to one maid agent I interviewed, employers hire Indonesians because they are perceived to be more loyal, more docile, more hard working and less fussy than their Filipina counterpart. This reputation can mostly be attributed to good marketing techniques by maid agents. For although it may seem commendable, in reality this reputation translates into more difficult working conditions. Most Indonesians are expected to work without rest days.
Indeed, negative stereotypes, which subvert the identity of FDWs as individuals, monopolise the mindset of Singaporeans. This has led to the dehumanisation of FDWs in their everyday interactions with Singaporeans. 'I feel that Singaporeans do not like us working here. They look down on us and don't treat us as humans,' lamented Sumi, a 25 year-old who has been working in Singapore for four years.
This prejudiced mindset also justifies excessive control over Indonesian FDWs. Madam S, an employer of an Indonesian maid in Singapore, said: 'These Indonesians cannot be trusted. They may take advantage if you give them too much freedom. My policy is to prevent them from making friends. If they have friends they will know more and when they know more there will be more problems for me.' She was only half joking.
Indonesian FDWs are also patronised by representatives of their own country. 'Those people at the embassy, they only look upon us like we are mice, like we have no value,' exclaimed Ibu Siti, a 55 year-old migrant who has been working in Singapore for ten years. Tuti, a 44 year-old migrant, complained that the Indonesian embassy does not seem to be bothered to organise productive activities for Indonesian FDWs on their rest days, despite a demand for such facilities. Some Indonesian FDWs, through the help of their Filipina counterparts, have instead taken the initiative to join skill workshops organised by the Philippines embassy.
Nevertheless, the voices of Indonesian FDWs have not all fallen on deaf ears. Recently, a mosque in Singapore responded to an appeal by a few Indonesian FDWs to provide them with facilities to get together for religious classes. Beginning from a mere gathering of eight maids, the group now boasts 150 members and calls itself An-Nisa. Its activities have expanded to include skills workshop like English and handicraft lessons. A maid who wanted a place where Indonesian women could break the monotony of domestic work and assert their individual identities initiated the formation of the group. Sumi, the leader of the group, hopes that through the worthwhile activities of An-Nisa, Singaporeans can see that Indonesian FDWs are also 'good people' and not look down on them as just maids. 'I am not asking Singaporeans to respect us, but just to treat us as equals. We are all humans, and it's just unfortunate that we have ended up as domestic workers,' said Sumi.
Perhaps the Indonesian embassy too can start to heed the voices of their women to improve their reputation and self-esteem in Singapore. Embassy staff members have been invited to celebrate the Islamic New Year with An-Nisa, and have pledged support in organising future activities. Nevertheless, the pledge so far remains lip service. Volunteers at the mosque claim they have not heard from the embassy since. An-Nisa's participation in a fun fair, organised by the embassy in conjunction with Indonesia's independence day recently, was again an initiative by the women themselves, who asked the mosque to write to apply for a stall.
This reminds me of an unpleasant memory on a visit to the embassy a couple of years ago. A young migrant who appeared distressed had just been brought in from the guard post. Instead of being asked gently what her problem was, the staff on duty barked at her and said, 'What's your problem? You ran away right? Don't hope that you can get a free ticket back. Sit here and someone will deal with you later.' I was stunned. Noticing the look of disapproval on my face, the staff turned to me and said coldly, 'These kids expect us to fly them home when things are not right with their employers, they think life is that easy.' The young woman was by then trying very hard to fight back her tears so as not to create a scene and embarrass herself further. Maybe it's going to take a while for the embassy to really listen to the voices of their women.
Noorashikin Abdul Rahman (email@example.com) is writing her PhD dissertation on these women at Curtin University, Perth, Australia.