Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Pic: AP.

By Henry Belot

Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yuduyono is set to sign an agreement with Saudi officials that will end a ban on Indonesian maids travelling to Saudi Arabia for work.

The well-publicised ban, which took effect in August 2011, followed a series of drawn out disputes over labour conditions, salaries, and the widespread abuse of Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia.

The tipping point came in June 2011 as Ruyati binti Sapubi, a 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded by Saudi authorities after being convicted of beating her employer’s wife to death with a meat cleaver.

Bizarrely, Riyadh failed to inform Indonesian authorities of Ruyati’s guilty verdict and subsequent execution, which led to an embarrassing diplomatic fallout for which Riyadh have since apologized for.

“The ambassador apologized and regretted the situation and said that such a thing wouldn’t happen again”, said Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Michael Tene.

This was of course not the first instance of human rights abuses against Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia. Many Indonesians travel to Saudi Arabia for domestic work in the belief that fellow Muslims will provide favourable working conditions. In reality, this has been far from the truth.

In 2007, Darsem binti Dawud, an Indonesian maid in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to death after murdering her employer, despite claiming that she was only acting in self-defense as her employer attempted to rape her.

Just last year, the Indonesian government paid a Saudi family a ransom or ‘blood money’ payment of  US$533,000 to save Darsem’s life. In the Saudi Arabia it is the victim’s family that may offer clemency following a blood money payment, and not the judicial system.

At the time of the Indonesia ban, the Indonesian Association for Migrant Workers Sovereignty reported more than 5,000 instances of sexual abuse and human rights violations against domestic workers.

In late 2012, the Indonesian government set clear prerequisites to be met before the ban could be lifted. These have served as the basis of negotiations between Riyadh and Jakarta.

Wages of domestic workers must be raised by 40% from SR850 (US$227) to SR1,200, while maids must work no more than eight hours a day an be entitled to weekly days off.

Other prerequisites included allowing maids to hold health insurance, receive sick payment, and new contract requirements that stipulate employers refrain from violence, respect human rights, and provide extensive family details to the Indonesian embassy.

Despite the publicised dangers, Indonesian maids have been travelling to Saudi Arabia and other nations for decades, often due to financial hardships at home and difficulty finding secure employment.

At the time of the ban approximately 1.5 million Indonesians worked in Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that 900,000 of these workers found employment as maids, drivers or gardeners.

While Indonesia’s economy is growing rapidly, up to 50% of the nation still live on less than US$2-3 per day. The allure of better wages in overseas economies like Saudi Arabia has been enough to encourage many to leave Indonesia.

Earlier this week, Sri Lanka announced a ban on women under 25 years of age travelling to Saudi Arabia for menial work, following the beheading of 17-year-old Rizana Nafik at a prison in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia defended the beheading in an official statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia categorically rejects any interference in its affairs or in the provisions of its judiciary under any justifications,” said the spokesman.

The tragic case of Rizana Nafik indicates that while Susilio Bambang Yuduyono may be able to mend diplomatic relations, the human rights abuses that led to the ban will continue to endanger Indonesian maids.

Amnesty International reports that at least 79 people were executed in Saudi Arabia during 2012, while Human Rights Watch have the number at 69. The standard form of execution in the Gulf Kingdom is a public beheading with a sword.