Indonesia's Migrant Maids


Wa Ode Darniaty’s eyes nearly pop out of her head when I tell her people can earn upwards of $15 an hour picking fruit in Australia.

"150,000 rupiah an hour? Just for picking fruit? How many hours a day can they work?" She pauses, and reaches quickly into her bag, pulling out her mobile phone. "If I worked eight hours, could I really earn 1.2 million rupiah ($120) a day?"

The amount is enough to pay the rent for Darniaty’s three-bedroom house for two months, but she’s never worked overseas before.

She’s actually never even been outside of the Southeast Sulawesi, let alone seen Indonesia’s rapidly growing capital, Jakarta. But this is not unusual — of the estimated 700,000 Indonesian women who migrate to work in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Taiwan every year, almost all have never travelled beyond the capital city of their province.

Although many admit to being scared of what might await them, the lure of financial security is strong. Many Indonesian families are forced to borrow money from banks, friends, relatives, neighbours, and moneylenders just so that they can live from day-to-day. Faced by such crippling debts, Indonesian women are increasingly choosing to become tenaga kerja wanita (literally "female labour") in foreign countries.

"I want to be able to provide food for my family," Darniaty says. "I’m going to have to stop working at [a national women’s NGO]if we don’t have any activities soon, because we don’t get paid otherwise. I’m thinking of selling vegetables in the market — one of my friends has an aunt with a farm."

If that doesn’t work, Darniaty thinks buying fresh coconuts and grating them to sell for coconut milk could be successful. "No-one has a coconut grating machine in my neighbourhood," she explains.

Married with one son, a step-son from her husband’s previous marriage, and a younger sister to look after, Darniaty’s monthly earnings hover around 200,000 rupiah ($20) per month, depending on the number of events her NGO holds. In a busy month, she might make 400,000 rupiah ($40) at the most.

For the average Indonesian, any wage paid in Australian dollars is a good wage. Here in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province, one of the poorest provinces in the country, locals consider themselves lucky if they can earn one million rupiah a month — approximately $100.

Even public servants with Bachelor degrees can only expect to earn 3 million ($300) per month after 10 years working for the government, and that’s after four years of study at Haluoleo University, the province’s main university, where a Bachelor of Economics requires an upfront investment of around 8 million rupiah ($800). With no HECS-style loans available, most students rely on their parents to fund their studies, and, once graduated, are expected to help their parents in return, through assisting financially every month.

It’s not so hard to see, then, why so many Indonesians are attracted to the idea of working overseas. Even just two or three months in Australia, Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia can provide enough money to live on in Indonesia for a year or more.

A Southeast Sulawesi Village. Photo by Kate Walton

Nila, 40, is a strong-willed woman. She lives in a small wooden shack with her extended family and many young children. But despite her tough attitude, she could not fight back against her boss when told what her wage working on a palm oil plantation in Malaysian Borneo would be.

"He told me I would get 14 Malaysian Ringgit (AU$4.30) for every hectare of trees that I sprayed with fertiliser," Nila explains. "Sometimes, if I worked really hard, I could do three hectares in a day, but that was only if my back wasn’t already sore from the weight of carrying the fertilising machine on my shoulders each day. It was really heavy. Most days I earned about 25 Ringgit (AU$7.70)."

In another village not far from Nila’s, Susmila is one of three women she knows who came back from Saudi Arabia pregnant. A shy young woman just 20 years old at the time, Susmila worked in Riyadh as a housemaid. She was two months pregnant when her boss finally allowed her to go home after six months of continuous sexual abuse.

"He would follow me into his bedroom whenever I went in there to put away clothes that I had ironed. His wife never knew; she was living at her parents’ house because she had just given birth. I never asked for help because I didn’t know where to go, and even if I did, I was too scared to report him. When I found out I was pregnant, I told him I wanted to go home, so he bought me a plane ticket back to Indonesia instead of giving me my wages," Susmila told New Matilda.

Susmila says that she initially thought she would never work overseas again, but after returning to Indonesia to give birth to her child, she realised the financial pressures that had previously forced her to work in Saudi Arabia still existed. Newly married, her husband encouraged her to seek a job overseas again.

"I went back to Saudi Arabia, to Al-Qasim [Province]," Susmila says. "I worked as a housemaid again, but the grandson of my boss made things hard. He liked to make the house messy just so he could watch me clean it up again." If she didn’t do it to his satisfaction, he would hit her with a rattan cane and call her a dog or Satan.

Susmila eventually asked for help from the police, and with the assistance of the Indonesian Embassy, was able to receive her wages and the exit visa required by the Saudi government in order to leave the country.

"My boss’ son was going to take me to the airport that morning," Susmila says. "He was a policeman, so I felt comfortable with him. We got up really early, when it was still dark, but he told me that we should move the cows to a different place first. He took me outside, and raped me. He tore my clothes and got them all dirty, but I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to go home. When he was done, I told him to take me to the airport."

Susmila says she was lucky not to get pregnant. Her son from her first trip to Saudi is now almost six years old, and although he has a Middle Eastern appearance, Susmila says she has not yet told him about his father.

Although women throughout Indonesia are returning with stories similar to Susmila’s, most former migrant workers are keen to try again. Tales of physical abuse, long hours, easily angered bosse, and wage issues do not change their minds. Get deported? You can always try again in another country. Come home pregnant? At least your baby will have a foreign-looking nose. Return with scars after your boss used an iron on you? Well, what’s to say your husband wouldn’t have done that, anyway?

In the end, the potential gains outweigh the risks, according to most former migrant workers. And it’s true that the majority will come home without having faced any major problems, but even among the former migrant workers who claim satisfaction or even happiness with their experiences working overseas, few truly escape human rights abuses.

All of the 17 women New Matilda spoke to said that their passports and other travel documents were taken from them and held by their bosses until they returned home.

At least one woman admitted to being deported, after her original boss died and her second one failed to attempt to retrieve her passport. All reported being locked in the house while their owners were out; none had ever set foot outside unaccompanied. Only a handful were allowed to keep their own mobile phone. And at least three of the women we interviewed were raped and sent home pregnant.

The women themselves are stoic about their experiences. No tears are shed, no tissues passed around. It’s fate, they explain, time and time again; God chose this path for them, and they must do what they can with what they have. God will reward them in the afterlife.

Names in this story have been changed

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.