Millions of labour migrants from developing countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka try to escape poverty and a lack of job opportunities at home by working abroad. Many end up in Middle Eastern destinations such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Others go to Asia Pacific countries including Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Brunei Darussalam and Japan. In addition to getting jobs for themselves, they send money home to help their families survive day-to-day life, to finance education and healthcare and to invest in a variety of ways. Thus they contribute to the economies of both the destination countries and their countries of origin which benefit from regular inflows of remittances. As a result, migration has become increasingly important to migrants and their families and to sending and host countries.
Many of the migrants work as domestic workers, a sector that is dominated by women due to the nature of the work and by the demands of the receiving countries. Many of them have low educational levels and insufficient skills to carry out the work expected by the employers. The lack of appropriate good quality training makes the matter worse. On top of these they face additional challenges such as different languages, cultures, laws, common practice, and other day-to-day aspects of life in the home of their employers.
The potential pitfalls of such working arrangements are obvious. It is common for a domestic worker to accidently destroy clothes while doing laundry and/or ironing due to a lack of training. The costs associated with such accidents can be high. If the atmosphere in the house is calm the consequences of mishaps can be minimal. But in a home that is hectic and full of tensions a small accident can easily flare up into an incident of abusive domestic violence. And if such incidents are repeated the situation can turn into one of habitual domestic abuse that is worsened by its location inside the home where there can be no third party and/or community scrutiny.
Moreover, the nature of the work that must be done in the employer’s property and the fact that the domestic worker has to live there too, leads to extended working hours and puts the worker in a very vulnerable situation. It is even worse when incidents happen in large secured houses or private apartments which offer no opportunities for the workers to interact with others. Reports of domestic workers being treated like slaves and suffering physical and sexual abuse sometimes conclude with them suffering permanent injuries, depression and even death.
Newspaper reports of a series of incidents involving Indonesian migrant domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia Pacific give a shocking insight into the severity of some of the abuse:
· In 2004, Nirmala Bonat, working in Malaysia, suffered burns to her chest and back from a hot iron and was scalded after boiling water was poured over her body;
· In 2005, Nur Miyati, working in Saudi Arabia, had to undergo the amputation of a body part due to infection caused by physical abuse;
· In 2007, Ceryati, working in Malaysia, was forced to escape through a window of the 15th floor apartment of her employer because she could no longer tolerate the daily physical abuse she was subjected to. Almost her whole body was injured, in particular her forehead was swollen, and her neck and hands badly injured;
· In 2009, Siti Hajar, working in Malaysia, endured abuse in the form of beatings and by having boiling water poured on her. She had been with her employer for 34 months but was unable to seek help from others until her escape from the house;
· Wasiah binti Toha worked in Abu Dhabi in 2009 but received no salary for 8 months. She decided to return home with neither money nor help from the recruiting agency due to the beatings she had endured from the beginning of her employment;
· Sumiati had to be hospitalised in Saudi Arabia in November 2010 after her employer cut her top lip because she complained about her workload;
· Erwiana worked in Hong Kong for 8 months in 2013. She had been made to work for 21 hours per day, was kept hungry, and got beaten with a wooden hanger or anything else within the reach of her employer, who eventually fired her and forced her to return home with injuries to her face, hands and legs.
The above list only highlights those cases exposed by the national and international press. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more incidences go hidden or unrecorded.
Many domestic workers suffer verbal and physical abuse combined with poor working conditions. More needs to be done to protect them. Many labour exporting countries have signed agreements with receiving countries to guarantee respect for the rights of the migrant workers, but the implementation details must be worked out.
Domestic workers from Indonesia seem to be particularly vulnerable. The high incidence of abuse has led the Indonesian government to declare a moratorium and there is a plan to stop sending domestic workers by 2017. As part of this plan, the government is going create more job opportunities and to educate and train migrant workers to meet the skills requirements of the jobs, as well as to give them knowledge of law and human rights.
Will this be enough? The answer is of course not. First, there should be a bilateral agreement between the sending and receiving countries to guarantee the rights and protection of migrant workers. Second, there should be a practical framework that adopts a rights-based approach to labour migration, emphasising non-discrimination, gender equality, and equality of opportunity for migrant workers, regardless of their immigration status. Third, not only should the workers receive training to help them adapt to the employer’s culture but the employers also need a basic understanding of the culture of their workers to be able to create a common understanding.
Protection of migrant workers must be comprehensive, beginning in their home country prior to departure, continuing throughout the duration of their work in the destination country, and covering them until they return home. Governments of sending countries need to be pro-active, making regular inspections of workplaces and working conditions to ensure the welfare of their migrant workers. All migrants should be given access to their countries representatives, in particular the labour attaches. The discussion above, however, does not take into account migrants in irregular situations, of whom there is a significant number and on whom the adverse impact is even more severe. For them, a more holistic approach is needed, covering the whole migration system, push and pull factors, and the immigration system. Protection of all migrants must be ensured through formal, transparent, and managed migration.
Endang Sugiyarto is a doctoral candidate in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium.