Denied food and cooped up for two months as a virtual prisoner in northern Iraq, Indonesian migrant worker Darmiati said she is a victim of abuse that started even before she left her country.
A recruitment agency in Indonesia told the 22-year-old it could get her a job in Iraq despite the fact that tests showed she had Hepatitis B.
AdvertisementOnce there, Darmiati was held by an Iraqi agency who, enraged to learn their Indonesian partners had sold them a woman too sick to work, took her passport and held her until she could repay the 2,500 dollars they said they were owed.
Darmiati's plight, and many like it, is, according to observers, ultimately the fault of a dysfunctional migration system in Indonesia, where weak legal protection, corruption and bad policy are failing migrant workers.
'Indonesia only sees migrant workers as commodities,' said Henny Wiludjeng, a law lecturer at Atma Jaya University.
Labour export is a big earner for Indonesia, where the country's 4.3 million workers abroad brought in 13 billion dollars in 2007, according to BNP2TKI, the government agency set up in 2006 to look after the welfare of such workers.
But standards are often shoddy among the government-approved migration agencies that have the sole right to send workers overseas, said Anis Hidayah, director of advocacy group Migrant Care.
She said tight control of the movement of migrant workers -- from village to foreign workplace -- means they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse every step along the way.
The path to migrant work usually starts in villages, where recruiters entice workers with the promise of around 100 to 150 dollars a month. Agents then put together travel documents for the workers and find them a job abroad.
But about half of all such documents are faked in some way, said Hidayah and Wiludjeng.
Darmiati's friend, Elly Anita, 26, said her passport was falsified to show her age as 34 to increase her chance of being hired as a domestic worker in the Middle East, where housewives are often jealous of younger women.
Hidayah said migration agents routinely fake details to shirk responsibility if something goes wrong.
'There have been cases where a migrant worker dies, their address and name are wrong so their body is sent to the wrong address,' Hidayah said.
Before they leave, migrant workers must spend at least one month of training at compounds set up by the employment agencies, where they are meant to be taught unfamiliar tasks such as changing disposable nappies.
Hidayah said complaints of squalid conditions and poor training are common in the centres, which dot Jakarta's outer suburbs and are closed off by high walls 'like jails'.
'When... Indonesian migrant workers stay in recruitment agency offices, I think no one can monitor what happens inside. We just know if someone maybe runs away and calls us that something happened to them, like abuse,' she said.
An inspection of 181 training centres earlier this year found about 40 percent were below minimum standards.
Jumhur Hidayat, the head of BNP2TKI, acknowledges the poor training and said his agency is working to improve standards.
Still, he said a lack of training is a key reason Indonesian domestic workers suffer abuse at the hands of foreign bosses frustrated by their lack of language and work skills.
Such cases are well known here in Indonesia. In January, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Nirmala Bonat, an Indonesian maid whose breasts and back were severely burned with an iron by her Malaysian boss after she broke a mug.
lDarmiati, who along with Anita managed to win freedom after two months by secretly making outside contact, said she suffered in the agency's office in Iraq where she was held with 24 other Indonesian women.
'Each day I'd cry with my friends, pretend to be sick, not eat. The guard, a Turkish man, was very fierce and if he busted one of us we'd all be punished and not be allowed to eat, up to a week not eating,' she said.
According to Anita, at least 24 women -- and possibly more than 50 -- were still being held by the Iraqi agency. The Indonesian agent who organised Darmiati's trip overseas, Gunawan, is awaiting trial for human trafficking.
The womens' case highlights the fact that Indonesia does not have a law requiring destination nations to abide by minimum labour standards, as does the Philippines, said lecturer Wiludjeng, leaving the migrants more vulnerable to abuse.
Despite the problems, the BNP2TKI's Hidayat said he doesn't see a need to change Indonesia's migration programme -- and that it was still better for migrant workers than letting them find work on their own.
'The migrant workers, usually they are domestic workers, are naive, they bring quite a lot of money, they bring big luggage and they are women,' he said.
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