You have reached the main content

Indonesia-Saudi Agreement Delayed

On April 30, 2014

In 2013, Riyadh and Jakarta initiated discussions to end the moratorium on domestic worker recruitment and improve conditions for the kingdom’s Indonesian workers. The memorandum of understanding includes online access to a work contract, a requisite day off, and protected wages amongst other rights.  The agreement also stipulated requirements for Indonesian workers, including that they receive training in specialized centers.  A joint working committee was established to determine specific contract requirements, such as wages and maximum working hours.

Local reports indicated that recruitment would resume in early April 2014. But according to the Indonesian councilor in Jeddah, disagreements have impeded its finalization. Recruitment is now expected to resume after Indonesia’s July elections.  Three months after finalizing the agreement, Indonesia plans to send around 8,000 domestic to Saudi Arabia each month. In the future, officials predict Indonesia will send closer to 15,000 workers a month.

The delay has not only impacted Indonesian domestic workers but the Saudi labor market as well. As Ramadan approaches, many Saudis are eager to hire domestic workers to handle the hectic domestic tasks that necessarily accompany daily feasts and gatherings. According to al-Hayat newspaper, recruitment fees for domestic workers have increased by 20% following rumors of the delay.

Indonesian domestic workers are particularly sought after because most are Muslim and are considered good workers. But the availability of Indonesian maids declined sharply in 2011, when Indonesia banned new recruits to Saudi following the execution of Ruyati binti Satubi. Saudi in turn issued a suspension of visas for Indonesian workers, and no new (legal) recruitment has taken place since.

Al-Hayat's report challenged official statements that the labor market is satisfied by the five countries currently sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia: The Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Kenya. Saudi previously attempted to replace Indonesian and Filipino workers by signing new agreements with these countries, because their workers are less expensive and their representatives are perceived to be more complaisant.  But Al-Hayat holds that Saudis are largely uninterested in recruiting Indian domestic workers, while the recruitment of Vietnamese workers has been difficult due to the absence of a Saudi embassy in Vietnam. Additionally, Saudi recruitment agencies refuse to offer the usual insurance for those interested in hiring domestic workers from Sri Lanka. Sponsors demand guaranteed 'replacement workers' to counteract the risk of losing costly recruitments expenses if workers abscond or underperform.

And though their recruitment fees are relatively low, al-Hayat states that Saudis are wary of Kenyan workers because of "security concerns."  These concerns are tied to the widespread demonization of African workers following criminal allegations against a number of Ethiopian domestic workers.

The current state of the labor pool, compounded by the approach of Ramadan, has increased the demand for Filipino workers and further stimulated the underground industry of part-time domestic workers. Saudi laws require domestic workers to be sponsored by a single individual, and that the worker live with their employer. But employers who do not want or cannot afford full-time workers have long hired hourly workers on the black market. These workers are sometimes freelance workers, who have left their employers because of poor working conditions or in pursuit of higher pay. These workers may be undocumented or may have an agreement with their Saudi sponsor, in which they pay a sum for their papers to be renewed. In other cases, recruitment agencies ‘loan out’ domestic workers, often overworking and undercompensating workers. The underground market consequently has a varying impact on domestic workers. Currently, al-Hayat estimates that part-time workers are being paid 20 Riyals, ($5.33 USD) an hour.

Presently, details of the final agreement remain unclear. Last month, Al-Arabiya quoted a Saudi official assuring citizens that a domestic workers’ salary would not reach 1200 Riyals a month ($319 USD).  The official claimed salaries and recruitment fees are not discussed in the agreement; instead, the agreement will act only as a "framework" that ensures worker rights, a good working environment, and a signed contract.  Meanwhile, Indonesian Labor Committee Official Younis Yamani claimed the salaries have already been set: 1200 riyals for (female) housemaids and 1500 for (male) drivers. Yamani did not expand upon the gender disparity in the salaries.

Muhaimin Iskandar, Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration minister, added that the agreement will grant Indonesian domestic workers "communication access, days off, salaries paid through banking services, and online access to a work contract."

Yamani also states these workers will receive 400 hours of training to be familiarized with "Saudi laws and social practices." But training programs that focus on conditioning workers to their destination states not only often fail to inform workers of their rights, but perpetuate distorted narratives of culpability; workers are told that the problem lies with their inability to conform to the local society, rather than with exploitative recruiting agents and employers. Yamandi added that all workers will "undertake psychological examinations to limit the possibility of any crimes occurring,” further contributing to the false perception that domestic worker issues lie primarily with individual domestic workers, rather than the conditions to which they endure.

The prospective agreement has come under fire by local rights groups; Wahyu Susilo, executive director of the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID), criticized the process for not being "open to the public" and to NGOs. Susilo added that any agreement that does not abolish the kafala system  "will not lead anywhere" since the sponsorship system denies workers basic mobility rights, in particular the right to return home and or change employers. Bilateral arrangements are inherently problematic because they do not rectify the structural causes of disempowerment, in particular the kafala system’s limitations on employment mobility and the disproportionate power afforded to employers.

Last year, GCC states announced they would address gaps in their respective national laws relating to domestic workers prior to finalizing a unified contract. But whatever conditions are momentarily secured in the agreements will not change policies unilaterally for domestic workers – if enforced, they instead can perpetuate the racial stratifications, an inevitable consequence which runs counter to the intent of a unified contract.