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Ida's Story: the plight of domestic migrant workers

Article | 24 January 2005

JAKARTA – Ida, a 27 year old woman from Indonesia and the youngest of three children, is still single. Her family does not own land, a paddy field, or a fish pond, to sustain their livelihoods. Ida lives in a village in Banten province on the main island of Java. Because of poverty and with an elementary level of education, many young people in her village go abroad as migrant workers. The main destination countries are the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, and several other Middle Eastern countries, with a few going to Malaysia.

Ida first went abroad in 1993. From her friend and cousins she obtained information about working conditions and "big pay" in Saudi Arabia although her friend and cousins had never travelled abroad. Ida seized this opportunity to escape unemployment, earn money and contribute to improving the economic situation of her family. She discussed her plans with her brother and finally got the blessing of her parents.

At that time, she did not even hold an identity card because she was only 15 years old. Together with her brother, she registered herself with a recruitment agency in Central Jakarta. They falsified her age on the identity card which was paid by her parents. The agency also took care of her passport for which they charged Rp 600,000 (about US$ 65). While waiting for her passport, she participated in a training course with the agency. Before she left for her first trip to Saudi Arabia, Ida signed a work contract that had been drafted by the recruitment agency. She did not read its contents.

Her first experience as a migrant domestic worker in Medina, Saudi Arabia, was positive. She worked for 9 years, and every three years she was entitled to a one-month leave to visit Indonesia. In 2002, Ida returned, rested for several months in her village, and then left again for Saudi Arabia through another recruitment agency. She was assigned to work in Mecca.

On arrival, she was collected by her employer, a 40 year old man and his wife. He explained that she would work as a domestic servant and be paid monthly. Ida also signed a work contract with her employer. Again, she took no notice of the contents of the contract as she considered it only an administrative requirement. For her, the most important aspect was that she was able to work, earn money, and transfer it home to her family.

Ida lived with her employers in their apartment. She worked alone, sometimes for almost 24 hours without rest. She did not get any leave. Two months after her arrival, life became hell for her – she was beaten, kicked and verbally abused. Her employer poured hot water on her and punished her with electroshocks. As she was not given any food, she often stole it from the kitchen. She was not allowed to communicate with other people. Her employers' excuse was that her work in the kitchen was not good enough.

She begged her employer not to beat her again, promising to do all the work well. But nothing changed. Abuse and violence continued, and she did not obtain the promised pay. She was told that she would be paid at the end of her two-year work contract. Ida asked the recruitment agency to relocate her to another employer, but they ignored her.

In her eleventh month of employment, Ida was accused of stealing the mobile phone of her employer's guest. She was locked in the bathroom, handcuffed, and beaten for not admitting the theft. Unable to endure the torture any longer, Ida decided to flee by climbing through the window in the guest room. Unluckily, she fell from the window of a fourth floor apartment, knocking herself unconscious and breaking her backbone. When she awoke, she found herself in hospital.

While in hospital, her employer tried to persuade her to come back. Ida refused and insisted to remain in hospital until she was strong enough to return to Indonesia. Before, her employer asked her to sign a letter. She was told that the letter stated that the cost of the hospital treatment would be deducted from her pay, and that if she refused to sign the letter, she would be taken back to her employer's house. In fright, she signed it. It was only later that she knew that the letter stated she had received all her pay.

As soon as she was able to walk again, Ida went to her recruitment agency and insisted to be sent back to Indonesia. At first, the agency said that Ida could not return home, but finally they sent her home. She returned to Indonesia in October 2003 – empty-handed, limping, with wounds that had not fully healed, and her right eye almost blind. Yet, she still wants to go abroad again to improve the economic situation of her family.

Ida's story reflects the reality for many migrant domestic workers in Asia. In February 2003, their experiences were discussed at a Regional Consultation on Domestic Workers in Hong Kong. The meeting concluded that there was a critical need to protect migrant workers in Asia against the threat of trafficking in persons or forced labour because of the isolation, discrimination and abuse domestic workers often experience.

This led to the design of a sub-regional South-East Asian Project on Mobilisation on the Protection of Domestic Workers from Trafficking and Forced Labour in South East Asia. The ILO Project aims to strengthen the protection of domestic workers in South East Asia through research, awareness-raising, technical cooperation on policy and legal frameworks for the protection and organization of domestic workers; and pilot projects. The Project covers the sending countries Indonesia and the Philippines, and the receiving countries Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong (China). With support from the UK development agency DFID, the project started in May 2004 and will run till March 2006.

The story is taken from the "Preliminary Report of the ILO on Mapping Forced Labour and Human Trafficking for Labour and Sexual Exploitation from, through and within Indonesia, 2004". For further information please contact Gita Lingga, ILO office in Jakarta,