After innumerable cases of violence and abuse, the Indonesian government banned its citizens from working as domestic workers in 21 Middle Eastern countries back in 2015. Despite that, there are still many Indonesians working in countries like Saudi Arabia, who were either desperate enough to go even after the ban was announced or who were working there before it was enacted.
Sukmi bint Sardi Umar, an Indonesian woman from Lebak, Banten, had been working in Saudi Arabia long before the ban. She first left for the Middle Eastern country in 1995 when she was just 18 years old. She returned to her homeland for the first time on Saturday.
According to the government, she is also finally getting paid for the first time in those 22 years.
“Her salary for her work was never paid by her employer and so Sukmi is depressed and has communication problems,” said the head of Serang’s Center for Manpower Domestic Worker Protection and Placement Services (BP3TKI), Gatot Hermawan, to the media trying to interview Sukmi upon her arrival at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport on Saturday, as quoted by Kompas.
After many years of not hearing from Sukmi and not having any way to contact her in Riyadh, her family reached out to BP3TKI who then reached out to the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh who were, fortunately, able to find her and rescue her after finding out that she had not been paid in over two decades.
The Indonesian government mediated with Sukmi’s employer and got him to agree to pay Rp 586 million for her back pay, equivalent to 44,000 USD (or about 166 USD per month). Hermanto did not mention if this was the full salary she deserved or a percentage.
According to Hermanto, the money was used to buy Sukmi’s flight back to Indonesia and the rest is currently being held by the embassy in Riyadh. He said the remainder would be transferred to Sukmi once she sets up a local bank account in Indonesia.
The circumstances of Sukmi’s employment in Saudi Arabia, and the reasons why she continued to work for her employer for 22 years without payment were not revealed. She said very little to the media at the airport and left immediately with her family to return to Lebak.
Common reasons why migrant workers continue to work for employers that abuse them or withhold their pay include threats or acts of violence, threats of having them jailed, the withholding of passports and isolation from families or friends they could ask for help.
A Saudi man, Homaidan Al-Turki has been imprisoned in the United States since 2006, for raping and enslaving an Indonesian domestic worker in the US. During his trial, he and his defense lawyer claimed that withholding pay and forbidding their worker contact with the outside world were aspects of Saudi culture that the US justice system was biased against. The judge didn’t buy that argument and he was sentenced to 28 years in prison, but Saudi Arabians recently took to social media saying that his conviction was unjust and that he should be paroled and returned to his home country.