Undeterred by sickening tales of abuse, Indonesian women are lining up to work as maids in Saudi Arabia where in just a few years they can achieve an almost unthinkable dream — financial independence.
Most think they will be treated well by fellow Muslims in the land of the Islamic holy places, despite the repeated cases of Indonesian women being subjected to physical and mental violence by their Saudi employers.
One recent example was so shocking it prompted Indonesia to summon the Saudi ambassador and send a ministerial delegation to the kingdom. Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, remains in hospital in Medina after her employer, a Saudi woman who has since been arrested, allegedly beat her causing internal bleeding and broken bones, scalded her head with an iron and slashed her with scissors, leaving her horribly disfigured and traumatized.
Earlier last month the beaten body of another Indonesian, Kikim Komalasari, 36, was found near Abha. Two people, her employers, have been arrested in that case.
Labor activists and rights groups have said the latest incidents highlight the paucity of protection for millions of mostly Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
However, the Saudi-bound women at a training course outside Jakarta dismissed them as isolated episodes, and said they were confident their future employers would treat them well.
“Torture can happen in any country, not just Saudi Arabia. Nobody can predict a person’s fate. I only pray for the best,” trainee maid Dian Utari said.
The 25-year-old has already done a stint as a factory worker and waitress in Malaysia, but found she spent too much of her wages on living expenses.
“It’s better to work as a domestic help. I don’t need to spend money on rent or food since I’ll live in the employer’s house. So I can save more to build a house in Indonesia in the future,” she said.
Another maid, 22-year-old Muslika, said: “The news did scare me but I’ll work hard, be patient and pray that God will protect me from crazy bosses.”
Like Utari, Muslika hopes to save most of her future monthly salary of 800 Saudi riyals (US$213) to buy a house and open a clothing boutique when she returns home.
For similar work with a family in Indonesia she would earn only about US$80 a month.
“My elder sister also worked in Saudi and she’s having an easy life now. She can afford a house, a grocery shop, even a paddy field,” Muslika said.
About 70 percent of the 1.2 million Indonesians working in Saudi Arabia are domestic helpers, officials said. Despite their humble origins, rudimentary education and low wages, Indonesia’s expatriate maids and, on the male side, construction workers, are major contributors to the country’s burgeoning economy.
The government works with recruitment agencies to prepare maids with simple courses of two to three weeks, involving basic Arabic lessons and instruction on how to cook biryani spiced rice and iron Saudi men’s headscarves.
At one session in Jakarta, the maids cracked up laughing when a trainer gave them the following advice: “When your Saudi employers tell you to naum, they mean go to sleep. Please don’t mistake it for minum [drink] in Indonesian, and start drinking lots of water.”
Mariah Mursyid, 44, said the four Saudi employers she had served over the past 17 years had treated her kindly, paying for her to do perform the hajj three times.