NL editie / World edition

A Mother to Abused Maids

by Elske Schouten

Out of 6.5 million Indonesians who leave to work abroad every year, thousands return home cheated and abused. Normawati helps them - undeterred by threats from the migrant workers’ brokers. The Indonesian government doesn’t do enough to protect them: Officials show little interest or are corrupt. Where they fail, Normawati succeeds.

A Mother to Abused Maids Jakarta. Normawati has a new problem case staying in her house. Wahyu Ningsi (24) from Lampung, a town on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, worked for four years as a housemaid in Malaysia and never received any pay. ‘Tough luck,’ she thought, it happens to others as well, and what can you do? But the driver who brought her home alerted Normawati, who took the young woman under her wing.

“Her boss was working at the HSBC bank, how come somebody like that doesn’t pay?” Normawati asks, sitting on the porch of her simple rented home in Jakarta.

Ningsi was promised 600 ringgit (150 Euro) a month. Fortunately, she remembered the full address of her boss. Normawati went to the Malaysian Embassy, where this large lady with her elegant head scarf is a familiar figure, to ask for clarification. Her strategy: first make sure the housemaid gets her severance pay, and then the years of salary owed to her, and then make sure that the bosses and the employment agency are punished. It works almost every time.

This is what Normawati (50) has been doing for over 10 years. With her foundation LPPTKI she helps Indonesian migrant workers who return home with problems. There are many of them. Every year, 6.5 million Indonesians travel to Malaysia, the Middle-East, Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan to work.

Thousands of them don’t get paid, are abused by their bosses or return pregnant after being raped. Normawati lets them stay in her home, nurses them in hospital, attends the deliveries of their babies and above all makes sure they get justice.

Flooded with chlorine
Normawati, who like many Indonesians has only one name, began her crusade at the end of the nineties, when she worked at the airport for a telecommunications company. “I saw many returned migrants. Standing there crying, with their luggage. There was nobody to help them.” She started as a volunteer at a foundation, but she soon felt that her colleagues were more interested in talking with each other than in helping the migrants themselves.

There was no one available to collect four women who were tortured in Saudi-Arabia from the airport. So Normawati went. “I was so shocked. One of them, her back was totally ruined, because her boss had thrown chlorine over her. Another one had a wound on her head from being thrown at a wall. One had a severe depression, one was raped.”

She took them to a hospital where, it turned out, severely abused women were admitted regularly but nobody knew about it. Normawati told their stories on television and started a campaign against sending women to Saudi-Arabia to work. Without success. But Normawati did succeed in attracting attention from the migrant workers’ brokers, who came to the hospital threatening to beat her up.

Now, more than ten years later, thousands of migrant workers call her Bunda, which means ‘Mother’. In her house are ten big plastic boxes containing the paperwork from all those years. Letters from embassies, from employment agencies, from the ministry of Employment, from legislators, court documents. All these papers needed to collect the money that the migrant workers are entitled to. She shows six files relating to men who worked in South-Korea. Their employment agency refuses to pay back the deposit of 1300 Euros they paid before leaving. Normawati: “I told the people at the agency: if you don’t pay them back, I’ll bring a reporter here who will put a camera right in your face.” Within three days, it was all settled.

Threats works best, according to Normawati. Threatening that journalists will visit the director of an employment agency to film his luxury car, ‘that is paid for by the sweat of our migrant workers’.

However, it doesn’t always work. Her biggest failure was a case involving 98 people who paid a deposit of 1,300 Euros to work in Taiwan. They ran up debts to pay it, sold their rice fields or their houses, but the employment agency turned out to be a scam. The workers received a mere 80 Euros compensation from the government.

It’s not always about money. Every month, Normawati helps the relatives of workers who passed away abroad to recover their bodies. She has hundreds of ‘grandchildren’, as she calls them, from all the women who return pregnant or with a half Arabic child. Some have been raped, some only got paid if they agreed to sleep with their boss, and others had an affair with the driver from Bangladesh. “I help them, no matter how they got pregnant. What is certain is that they have a problem.” Like the woman who got pregnant after being raped, and feared that her husband wouldn’t take her back. Normawati called him before she arrived, to explain the situation. The next morning she got a phone call. “Allah be praised, he was going to accept her and the child.”

Normawati thinks that all women going to work abroad should have access to contraceptives. But surprisingly, women’s rights activists don’t agree with her. “They say: these women will all end up giving free sex. But I say: it’s their own choice. They have to decide themselves whether they want to be housemaids or prostitutes.”

Access to contraceptives is just one of the things that have to improve in the way Indonesia handles its ‘foreign exchange heroes’, as they are called, according to Normawati . “The government should really protect them,” she says, but the Ministry of Employment is full of lazy people idling around. After her complaints, an official at the embassy in Kuwait was fired, for ‘selling’ women with problems to new employers.

Normawati believes Indonesia also needs to be stricter. Only women with a high school diploma and some knowledge of the language of their destination country should be sent abroad. The compulsory three week course that they now follow to learn domestic work and the language, is too short and too limited. Take Ningsi for example, who didn’t know that her salary should be paid every month, and not after her contract ended. Normawati said that “at the agencies, they learn to be submissive, to always listen to their boss. If you get beaten, don’t talk back, they’re told. They don’t learn anything about their rights.”

Then her old Nokia rings. A phone call from a Saudi-Arabian jail, where some 600 Indonesians are detained for immigration issues, ‘immorality’ or worse. The woman on the phone tells her that three months ago, she paid 300 Euros to an official at the Indonesian embassy to return home - which should be free. “They are Indonesians, but they don’t help us”, she says down the phone. “They even get angry with us.”

Sometimes these women spend a year in jail, says Normawati after hanging up. The Philippines get their workers out of prison within a week. “Why is it only this way with Indonesian women?” she asks before writing down the name of the embassy official.


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Elske Schouten

Elske Schouten

Elske Schouten is South East Asia correspondent for Dutch radio and dailies NRC Handelsblad and nrc next. From her base in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, she tries to answer the question: what do economic growth, political upheaval and religious tension mean to ordinary men and women. Elske studied journalism and molecular biology before starting out as a reporter for NRC Handelsblad’s economic desk.


"Sometimes you finish an interview and you think, wow, what an impressive person! Courageous, inspiring, altruistic. They’re doing something really important. But there’s not really a place in the daily news round for random do-gooders! That’s why I grabbed the chance to write about my heroes for One11. It’s a beautiful idea: creating an inspiring gift together with dozens of your colleagues from all sections of the media. I had to be part of it."