End overseas hiring of Indonesian maids? Start at home first
MAIDS have increasingly become Indonesia's best-known global export "commodity" (excuse me for the lack of a better word) and while the government would not recognise it and many Indonesians feel ashamed acknowledging it, no one seems to have any serious intention of stopping it.
We have to admit that these young rural women are earning foreign exchange valuable to the economy.
Many times, I have come across people in Asia and in the Middle East who would tell me the moment they learn that I come from Indonesia: "Hey, my maid at home is an Indonesian." They would say this as a statement of fact rather than a derogatory remark about my nation.
Many of them would add that Indonesians make the best domestic helpers, presumably based on their experience of hiring helpers of other nationalities in the past. They would describe their Indonesian maids as hard workers, loyal and obedient.
I have heard such remarks from well-meaning friends and acquaintances in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, South Korea, Japan (disguised as nurses in their work permits), Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is also a known fact that Indonesian maids are the most sought-after across the Middle East, where Indonesia is filling the vacuum left by the Philippines and other Asian countries.
We learnt about the thousands in a small country like troubled Syria when the Indonesian government had to evacuate them to safety last year. I even heard from an Israeli acquaintance at one time that she had hired an Indonesian maid.
What they would never say, but something that we would quickly recognise, is that these Indonesian women are vulnerable to abuse. Their fates and conditions, like in any master-slave relationship, lie entirely in the hands of employers. Most may be benevolent, but some are evil.
We have heard stories of Indonesian maids being enslaved, subjected to unimaginable torture and physical abuse, including rape and murder. Missing from media reporting are stories of maids who do well, make a decent living and send money to their families back home from their hard-earned salaries.
With more horror news stories of Indonesians being abused, there are growing calls for the government to ban the practice of sending maids abroad, starting with a moratorium. News of the beheading of two Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia last month for murdering their employers has amplified the calls to stop the export of the country's No. 1 "commodity" once and for all.
But we have been here and done that before, and know it is not going to work. Hard-pressed to find jobs and eke out a living, unskilled rural women would find ways of circumventing the moratorium or ban, making them even bigger prey to unscrupulous middlemen and employers.
There is no stopping it as long as we address this only as an economic matter of supply and demand. There are millions of young rural women desperate for jobs that the nation cannot provide, while at the same time there are families - both at home and abroad - who cannot live without them.
Yes, Indonesian households are actually the largest employers of these young women. This makes their calls to stop exporting Indonesian maids abroad selfish at best and hypocritical at worst.
What makes them think that they make better employers than those in other Asian countries or in the Middle East? Going by the lengths the government goes to in trying to ensure these workers better legal protection abroad - such as by insisting on a legal contract with conditions attached, including minimum wages - these young rural women are much better off there than at home.
Their exposure to living abroad often allows them to develop skills they would not otherwise learn. Ask any housewife and she would tell you the best maids are those with "international experience". They tend to be far more disciplined and diligent at work, and can cook delicious Asian and Arab foods.
TURNING A BLIND EYE AT HOME
And in the absence of any legal protection in the country - maids are not considered as workers - can we seriously claim that these women are better off working here at home? Activists who demand better protection for Indonesian workers abroad usually turn a blind eye to the situation at home because, like other middle-class Indonesians, they are employing maids at home without holding themselves to the standards they are demanding of employers abroad. And just because we rarely, if at all, hear stories of maid abuse in Indonesia does not mean it is not happening.
Indonesian housewives are usually the first to scream for help the moment they lose their maids, even if for only a week or two. Listen to how loudly they complain around the time of Idul Fitri, when these maids join other revellers to celebrate the major Muslim holiday.
In the absence of any law governing their employment - it is left entirely to the kindness of employers - there is a tendency for these households to impose stringent measures, like keeping part of the maids' meagre wages, to ensure their return.
If we want to stop sending maids abroad because we are concerned for their safety, then we need to ban the practice of hiring maids altogether at home first. But can Indonesians live without their maids? The answer will most likely be a big "No!"
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post
For more reports on the go, check out the "MyPaper" iOS and Android apps.