Yesterday, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia inked an agreement that says Indonesian women working in Saudi homes will be able to keep their passports, communicate with their families, get paid monthly, and have time off.
The new pact comes in the wake of years of numerous horrific cases of abuse against the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian women who migrate to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of financing a better life for their families at home.
As past Human Rights Watch research has shown, domestic workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia must often work from dawn until late in the night, with no days off and inadequate food. Unpaid wages, being confined to the workplace, and employers withholding passports to prevent them from leaving are among the most common complaints. I have also spoken to many domestic workers whose employers beat them, threatened to kill them and dump them in the trash, compared them to animals, burned them with irons or boiling water, or raped them.
Responding to growing outrage at home, the Indonesian government banned migration to Saudi Arabia for domestic work in August 2011. The Saudi government, finally making some nods to reform, adopted new labor regulations for domestic workers in 2013 that guaranteed monthly payment of wages, paid vacation at the end of two years, and an outrageously high limit of 15-hour workdays.
The labor regulations and new pact are slow moves in the right direction, but neither have clear enforcement mechanisms for a group of workers typically isolated in private homes, unaware of their rights, and unable to speak Arabic. These reforms do not address the long history of workers coming forward with complaints only to be slammed with counter-allegations of theft, witchcraft, or adultery by their far more influential, well-connected, and often wealthy employers.
For Indonesian domestic workers to work in Saudi Arabia in dignity and safety, a huge push to transform the attitudes of employers and the fairness and effectiveness of the justice system are crucial.
Other critical changes still seem far away. Saudi Arabia needs to reform its restrictive kafala system, which cedes employers inordinate power by giving them control over when a migrant can change employers or leave the country. It should bring its labor laws in line with the protections outlined in the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention.
While Saudi Arabia and Indonesia’s new agreement opens the door for greater protections, the crucial test will be seeing improvements in domestic workers’ lives.