The news of yet two more Indonesian maids tortured and killed while working abroad provoked the somewhat predictable reactions—the Indonesian media feasted on the gruesome details of the maids’ ordeals, politician jostled for positions of sympathy and commiseration, and the public and activists staged animated and angry protests, demanding justice and better deals for the four million plus Indonesian people, one quarter illegal, working abroad.

There are more than three million legal Indonesian migrant workers currently working outside of Indonesia, more 80% serving as live-in maids. For the latter, the term ‘migrant worker’ may fool punters into believing that migration is based on the foundation of free will—the kind which sees skilled, educated individuals taking up opportunities for a better economic, social and political future, in environments that are open to negotiations driven by the negotiators’ credentials. For the Indonesian maids working abroad, and to a certain extent, for the maids employed locally, the reality is somewhat different, strikingly akin to modern day slavery overly represented by the female gender.

Live-in maids in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, Dubai, Hong Kong, Taipei or anywhere else in the world, essentially work under arrangements like the slavery system of old. The contracts they sign are unenforceable the moment after they step into the house. The maids become slaves and the employers become their masters. The masters can disregard contracts, international conventions and national and international laws, and there is nothing that maids or slaves can do. The only law applicable inside the house is what master says, like the old slavery system, the maids are property owned by the masters (Jakarta Post Opinion, 24/11/2010).

In the latest political hullabaloo, Indonesian president Susilo Bangbang Yudhoyono called for all Indonesian maids going abroad to be issued with a mobile phone. Such response is worthy of the contempt it deserves—strikingly similar to Queen Marie Antoinette famous quote “Let them eat brioche” when told that the French people were starving. In any case, with all probabilities the majority of women that are abused, tortured, raped or killed with such disturbing regularity are closer to a mobile phone than SBY will ever be to the commitment of finding a solution—his remarks are a clear sign of the inability or unwillingness to tackle the issues faced by Indonesian women abroad.

Why so? Suffice to say that the Indonesian slave trade is worth a hefty Rp60 trillion a year in foreign currency exchange with Saudi Arabia alone, where one third of Indonesian migrant workers serve as domestic labourers.

Other political heavy weights have asked for a moratorium on women migrating abroad until cooperation agreements with other nations have been reviewed and sufficient protection can be offered to workers. History shows however, that a banning on travel is like putting a band-aid on a profusely bleeding wound. People who are forced to give themselves up to uncertain and cruel working conditions to lift themselves and their families out of the hopelessness they face at home, will find a way out, legal or otherwise, thus aggravating the problem.

Other commentators have asked for a total ban on sending live-in maids abroad, as the latest cases of torture suffered by Indonesian women have “humiliated Indonesia as a nation”. Unfortunately, the nation’s attitude is not helping the cause. Instead, most seem to want to maintain this slavery system. That is, Indonesian households are the biggest beneficiaries of modern day slavery and have no interest or incentive in phasing out the system. Anecdotal evidence reveals the complaints that housewives make two weeks every year when their live-in maids take annual leave for the Idul Fitri festivities. Some families are so dependent on their maids that they check into five-star hotels in their absence [sic].

Indonesians, first and foremost, seem to need their housemaids. Those sent abroad are just a surplus that the country has decided to ‘generously’ share with other countries in the world. What is truly humiliating for Indonesia is that the feminisation of slavery is caused by the need to escape poverty in a country where the abundance of wealth is clearly visible, but out of reach for most of its citizens.

Foto: Puncak, East Java ’10