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UAE: Despite Ban, Indonesian Workers Still Gulf-Bound

Meena S Janardhan

DUBAI, Feb 10 2005 (IPS) - Despite a ban enforced by Indonesia in 2003 prohibiting domestic workers from accepting work in certain Gulf countries, several still manage to slip in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Indonesian authorities say that the ban was introduced after Jakarta received numerous complaints from its citizens working in the Gulf countries that they were either abused or exploited by their employers. Many, too, were cheated of their salaries.

But that still has not deterred those wanting to work in the UAE despite knowing very well of the risks involved.

”I came here before 2003, and have been working in a UAE national’s house since then. I have had no problems at all and I am paid much more than what I will earn back in my own country,” said Fatima, a domestic worker in Dubai.

”There have been cases reported in the papers of maids being abused by their employers but just because of that we can’t turn down jobs,” she told IPS. ”The pay, the working conditions and the easy availability of jobs cannot be ignored.”

Currently, Indonesian domestic workers account for 90 percent of its 30,000-strong workforce in the UAE. Indonesian embassy figures state that in 2004 alone, the embassy had dealt with over 800 labour disputes involving these workers.

In 2002, official figures showed that domestic workers made up 80 percent of the female Indonesian foreign workforce. Figures for 2003 and 2004 are not yet available. A number of domestic workers, who had been recruited prior to the ban, are said to have renewed their contracts.

In a press statement, an official from the Indonesian Consulate said, ”The government decided not to allow our citizens to be sent as housemaids to some countries on Aug 23, 2003. But even after that some individuals in the UAE with the connivance of agencies in Indonesia continue to bring Indonesian women as housemaids illegally.”

Said an Indonesian Consulate official: ”Usually the Indonesian government does not issue passports for women who want to take up housemaid’s jobs in such countries where the ban is applicable.”

”But these racketeers involving agencies in Indonesia manage to get passports for these maids after submitting visas from a third country,” he told IPS. ”This third country is used as a transit point to circumvent the ban and bring Indonesian housemaids to places like the UAE.”

Because of this, immigration authorities in Indonesia have tightened procedures to obtain passports and officials individually interview the candidates to make sure that they are skilled workers and will not take up domestic jobs overseas.

”My cousin has just come from Indonesia and is now working here. She came through a recruitment agency that asked her not to inform immigration authorities in Indonesia that she will be working in the UAE,” said Fatima.

”Nowadays housemaids use neighboring countries as transit points. She came via Singapore. The agencies then arrange UAE visas to enable them to enter the country and work as housemaids,” she added.

Among UAE nationals, Indonesian housemaids are a popular choice as domestic employees as most of them are Muslims and therefore understand local traditions better.

”I have always preferred to employ an Indonesian as a housemaid as she is better suited to our customs and religion. I can therefore be sure that when she looks after my children, our traditions will be passed on to them,” Ahmed Al Muhairi, a UAE national based in Dubai.

”But now it has become very difficult to get them after the ban imposed by their government,” he lamented.

Recruitment agencies too are facing problems as the demand for Indonesian housemaids far outstrips their availability.

”The ban imposed in 2003 has really affected our work. Authorities in Indonesia reject our applications for housemaids outright and so we have to turn down a lot of requests from customers,” said Rafiq Muhammed, a Pakistani manager of a recruitment agency in Sharjah, another emirate.

”If an agency provides me an Indonesian housemaid, I will employ her. As long as she behaves well and looks after my children properly, nothing else matters,” said Ahmed.

Elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are facing similar problems. The Indonesian government has requested the authorities in Gulf countries to introduce stringent procedures whereby domestic workers can only enter provided the Indonesian missions have endorsed their visas and stamped their passports in accordance with Jakarta’s labour laws.

Available statistics reveal that at least 2,000 Indonesian domestic workers entered Qatar in violation of the ban.

Several Gulf countries have in fact introduced such measures. The governments are also taking cases of abuse and non-payment of salaries very seriously.

In the UAE, cases that are referred to the authorities are settled immediately.

The Kuwait government has recently arranged to repatriate 350 Indonesian domestic workers to their country after they complained of ill treatment. Thirteen Saudis who allegedly mistreated their domestic help have been banned from importing foreign help – the most recent government measure aimed at warding off criticism that overseas workers are abused in the kingdom.

”The ban is not something new … We do not bar our citizens from taking up overseas jobs. Often we find people who want to go as housemaids abroad do not even know how to switch on a washing machine or operate other household gadgets,” said the Indonesian Consulate official.

”When such people apply for a passport through legal means the Labour Ministry makes sure that they know how to do household chores. They are put through orientation programmes, conducted either by the ministry or by licensed recruitment agencies,” he pointed out.

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