JAKARTA - Yeni is shaking as she looks at the photograph. Taken five years ago, the image is of her younger sister, Erna, then only 15 years old, and about to leave Indonesia for Saudi Arabia.
Yeni explains that Erna had been approached by a recruiter for an employment agency, who'd come to their village in the eastern part of the island of Java. "On the way to school, he persuaded her to leave, telling her about the easy money that she could earn, more than ten times more than the average salary in Indonesia," says Yeni.
Erna left soon after. She joined a training center for housemaids in Jakarta where she received a short course in ironing and cooking. "The employment agency forged her date of birth to get her a working visa. They also forged my father's signature so they could send her abroad as soon as possible," Yeni says. "My family was against her leaving, but we couldn't do anything. We hadn't heard from her in months. We weren't even sure where she was." When Yeni learned of what had happened, it was too late.
Six months after her arrival in Saudi Arabia, Erna began to complain about being treated badly. She wept and wanted to return home to Indonesia. Yeni took the case to the Indonesian government and urged them to do something, but to no avail. Erna received no protection. Two months later, she died at the hands of her employer. Since then, Yeni is attempting to bring charges against the employment agency, once again in vain. "If we stop legal proceedings, the agency has promised us compensation," says Yeni.
"The employment agency offers insurance in case of any problems. It is valid for two years, which is the standard duration of a contract," explains Agustinos from the Komnas Perempuan institution, which defends women's rights. "Yet, employers often keep their maids beyond this period, so they don't have to pay the agency another 1,400 euros for a new maid.”
Human trafficking and corruption
"Employers pay a hefty sum to the employment agencies for housekeeping staff. They believe that they have bought us and that they can treat us as slaves," explains Eli. This young woman was a victim of human trafficking, living in four different countries for more than 10 years, before she managed to escape. She emphasizes her departure from Indonesia. "Even before I was sent abroad, I was treated as a slave by the employment agency in Jakarta. Under the pretext of an apprenticeship, I worked for them for free for months. Cleaning, ironing and cooking without even earning a penny," Eli recalls.
More than one million Indonesian women work as maids in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the government in Jakarta signed a moratorium, saying that it would not send any more domestic workers to Malaysia or Saudi Arabia. Despite this, some 20,000 Indonesians are recruited each year to the Saudi kingdom. "The agencies forge documents. Some Indonesian women are sent to other countries in the Gulf first. For others, a special visa is obtained, for example a pilgrimage visa to travel to Mecca. However, in reality, they stay in Riyadh and become slaves," explains Anis Hidayah from the Migrant Care association.
There are now almost 600 employment agencies for domestic workers in Indonesia. "The government cannot control them all. They deal in large amounts of money and therefore have the support of the government, in this country mired in corruption," says Anis Hidayah.
They manage to persuade young women to try their luck abroad, luring them with not only money, but the possibility of fulfilling every Muslim's dream: Saudi Arabia is the sacred place of the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.