By Astrid Zweynert
HONG KONG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia's proposed ban on sending domestic workers to the Middle East will force women seeking an escape from poverty to migrate illegally, and put them at greater risk of human trafficking, a rights campaigner said on Wednesday.
President Joko Widodo announced in May that Indonesia would stop sending new domestic workers to 21 Middle Eastern countries after Saudi Arabia executed two Indonesian maids, local media reported.
Eni Lestari, chairwoman of the International Migrants' Alliance comprising more than 120 member organizations, said Indonesians would continue to seek work overseas unless the government did more to tackle poverty.
"This moratorium makes women more vulnerable because they will migrate anyway," Lestari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's not about protecting migrant workers - on the contrary, it increases the risk that they are trafficked because they will be illegal migrants and have no protection at home and in their destination countries," she said.
Lestari was speaking on the sidelines of Trust Forum Asia, a conference co-hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that aims to tackle modern day slavery.
There are 53 million domestic workers worldwide, more than 80 percent of them are women, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Domestic workers are among the most exploited people in the world, with the ILO estimating that private households save $8 billion a year by not paying or under-paying domestic workers.
An estimated 600,000 Indonesians work in the Middle East, mostly as domestic workers.
Indonesia's proposed ban, which is expected to come into effect later this year, affects Saudi Arabia – a major destination for Indonesian domestic workers – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt among other countries.
Despite Indonesia's success in more than halving the poverty rate since 1999, some 28 million Indonesians in a country of 252 million still live below the poverty line.
"Without making more of an effort to tackle poverty, inequality and corruption in our country, people will be forced to leave Indonesia because we cannot make a decent living at home," Lestari said.
The government's practice of issuing licenses to private agencies to organize "the export of migrant workers" had resulted in widespread exploitation and abuse, she added.
Lestari said before coming to Hong Kong as a domestic worker 15 years ago, she was trained over several months to cook, baby sit and speak basic Cantonese.
However, workers still do not receive adequate training or information to prepare them for their new life abroad, she said.
"There is no training on understanding what legal rights you may have as a migrant worker, no advice on what to do if you're abused, other than to say, 'Call your agency'. But they are often abusive themselves," Lestari said.
Previous bans in Indonesia and other countries, such as Malaysia, had not reduced domestic worker abuse, according to evidence collected by advocacy groups.
If governments want to make a real difference they should legislate to guarantee employment contracts of migrant workers to avoid them being exploited by recruitment agencies and employers, Lestari said.
(Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)