June 26, 2013
Recent unrest outside the Indonesian consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has refocused attention on the challenges faced by Indonesians working overseas.
Tens of thousands of Indonesians have been rushing to update their working permits during an amnesty announced by the Saudi government that expires July 3rd. After that date, undocumented workers may face up to two years in prison or stiff fines.
A riot broke out as thousands of workers were queuing outside the Jeddah consulate in suffocating heat on June 9th, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene.
Frustrated workers threw stones and water bottles and set fires outside the consulate. Dozens were injured, including a consulate security guard. A 55-year-old woman, Marwah binti Hasan of Madura, East Java died. It was unclear whether her death was due to natural causes or was a result of the fracas.
A few days later, Saudi authorities detained 78 Indonesians allegedly involved in the riot, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa confirmed.
"After being detained at a deportation center, they will be deported. But of course, the Indonesian government will provide them with assistance," Marty told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, on June 14th.
"The same applies if there were foreigners committing crimes in our country, they must face charges, mustn't they?" The Jakarta Post quoted him as saying.
Concern for workers
Yenny Wahid, director of the Wahid Institute and daughter of former president Abdurrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur"), said the government should step up its efforts to help the workers.
"We express a very deep concern over this incident," Yenny told Khabar South Asia.
Many migrant workers fall prey to illegal brokers who do not properly complete the required documents the workers need, she added.
"Most of our workers are illiterate. Therefore, they need assistance in filling out the forms. The Indonesian consulate in Jeddah should increase the number of personnel to help them," she continued.
Puji Purwanti, a Jakarta resident, said she hoped the riot would not affect the many workers currently in Saudi Arabia.
"My sister has been in Saudi Arabia for more than five years now. Following the current news about what happened there is very sad and concerning," she said.
"I hope the Indonesian government will continue to improve its protection to our workers," she said. "As I hear from the radio, it says that in 2011 alone there were more than ten thousand cases of migrant worker abuses."
In 2011, Indonesia stopped sending new workers to Saudi Arabia after a maid was convicted of killing her allegedly abusive employer and beheaded.
Following the riot, the government sent additional staff to Saudi Arabia to assist Indonesian nationals there, according to Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Muhaimin Iskandar.
Also, he added, on February 22nd, the Indonesian and Saudi governments signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the protection and social security of workers in the Kingdom.
"With this agreement, we can see our workers feeling safe living in Saudi Arabia," he told Khabar.
According to the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers (BNPPKTI), the number of Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia has reached over 1.4 million.
About 6.5 million Indonesians worked overseas in 2012, sending home 7.2 billion dollars, roughly 1% of the nation's GDP, according to the World Bank.
Sri Sumirah, a 48 year-old woman from Magetan, East Java who worked in Saudi Arabia for more than 10 years, said she is thankful for the MoU and hopes workers benefit from it.
"Even though the MoU exists between the two countries, I think the Indonesian government needs to monitor the situation at all times. Many of our workers are subject to unpaid wages, and mistreatment by employers, which has resulted in death," she said.
Workers themselves have a role to play in improving their lot. "All workers need to be skilled, and please do not send illiterate workers. You have to know your rights," she said.