by: Laraswati Ariadne Anwar *
KR is a twenty four year old woman from the small town of Kendal, Central Java Province. She is the eldest of two children, having a younger sister. Her parents are farm labours, meaning they do not have their own farm; instead they are renting from a landlord. The field is not that big, so the crops produced from the harvest are only enough to feed KR’s family, there is not many extra produce that they could sell to add income. KR recalls until she was in high school she helped her parents on the field every day, but for reason unknown her father forbade her to help him on the field after she finished high school.
“He just said ‘it’s not appropriate for a young woman to go to the field’. I never actually understood why. Whenever I came to the field to bring him lunch, Father always immediately told me to go home at once, never to set foot on the field again.”
KR is a bright girl; this is proven by her acceptance at Semarang State University’s chemistry department. Unfortunately luck was not on her side; her family could not afford the tuition fee, therefore she was forced to accept the fact that she could not pursue further education. Money became new priority for KR; she wanted to work to buy a piece of land where her parents could farm, so in the future they will not have to be marginalized because of their lack of money. She set her mind on Singapore.
“Many women in my village work as migrant workers. They have nice brick houses and motorcycles, some of them even have satellite TVs. Most importantly their children can go to school.”
Her familiarity with migrant workers made her knew instantly which agency to contact. KR was eighteen at that time, but it was not a problem; with some bribery magic her agent reprocessed her documents and instantly turned her into twenty-one years old. For two and a half months KR was placed in a dormitory in Semarang to learn some Basic English, cooking, cleaning, and other necessary skills. Many of the girls never had any working experience before, so besides classroom learning there was also field work. Each of the girls was sent to work in a household; most of the households they went to were friends or relatives of the company owner. In these households the girls were learning how it really felt to work as domestic workers. Each girl stayed for twenty four hours in a household, and for every twenty four hours the girl was paid Rp 10,000 (US$ 1). KR spent one month doing field work, an experience she considered to be unpleasant.
“The house was so big! Three storey high and I had to sweep, mop, and clean each floor every day. It was my first time ever working, so I was shocked. All of my friends got much smaller houses, I had a bad luck; sent to a huge mansion.” (Laughing)
KR was so worried her job in Singapore would be equally tough, but she tried to keep in mind that the field work was to add her skills. For KR busy days made one month went by so quickly. She fondly recalls that her favourite part during training was learning how speak English. The English she learned was of course not thorough, but designed for communication between employer and employee. After two and a half month of training, KR was sent to Singapore on February 2007. She spent one night sleeping at her agent’s place and was picked up by her employers the next morning. KR worked in an apartment for a family consisted of a female employer (Ma’am), her husband (Sir), a twelve years old son (Gege), and a six years old daughter (Meimei). She worked there until late 2008. KR described Ma’am was very scary when she was angry, she was also very stingy.
“In Ma’am’s opinion her obligations to me were feeding me and paying my salary, she never asked how I felt or anything.”
Singapore also provided health insurance to migrant workers, but KR admitted she never used any of the facilities. She claimed she did not know how to use her health insurance even when she was ill, neither her employers nor her agent taught her how. KR’s job in Singapore was not particularly difficult, so she said. She woke up every morning at six o’clock; prepared breakfast for the family; after Sir and Ma’am left for work and the children left for school, she started cleaning the apartment. The apartment was not that big, she did not have to spend a lot of time wiping and vacuuming the place. After finished cleaning around ten o’clock KR had one to two hours of rest where she could watch television or take a nap, then she started cooking lunch for the children as they arrived home around two o’clock. She had time for afternoon rest until Sir and Ma’am arrived home around five thirty, then she started making dinner for the family. By nine o’clock in the evening KR’s chores were done and she was allowed to rest until the next morning.
“In term of workload it wasn’t that much, but I barely could stand Ma’am’s attitude. She was too hostile to me and I was afraid of her, so when I finished my contract in November 2008 I decided not to come back again.”
KR only stayed with her family for about one month. On January 2009 she went applying for a job in an agency that sent workers to Taiwan. The training she received was a lot harder and strenuous than when she was prepared for Singapore, it included seven hours of learning Chinese per day. On Saturday and Sunday they would have trainings on how to take care of old people and babies. Jobs in Taiwan were specifically for taking care of old people or babies; a household must have minimum of three underage children in order to employ a housekeeper, unless the documents were falsified and the housekeeper came to Taiwan only to babysit one baby.
“I actually dreamt of going to college after I came back from Singapore. But I used the money to fix our house and paid my parents’ debts; in the end all of the money was spent. I couldn’t find a job with sufficient pay, so I decided to go to Taiwan.”
“I was afraid of going to Saudi [Arabia], I heard so many Indonesian females were tortured and executed there; I also didn’t dare to go to Hong Kong, I heard many Indonesian workers coming to Hong Kong became lesbians; Japan and Korea were so expensive; Taiwan was the easiest option compared to all. It only cost Rp 1,500,000 [US$ 150] to go to Taiwan.”
In May 2009 KR flew to Taiwan, she landed in Taipei and was driven to Kaohsiung to stay at the dormitory along with workers from the Philippines. Some workers might stay at the dormitory for a night, some for three days. First thing in the morning she had a medical checkup and was taken to the agency’s office where she had to sign several documents. A translator working for the agency explained to KR using Indonesian.
“The translator said my job is to look after a baby. My employers do have an aging mother, but at that time she was still healthy and did not live with them. They used Ama to get a permission to hire me, while actually my job was to take care of their baby daughter. Translator then said ‘if anybody asks what you do, you have to answer that you are in Taiwan looking after Ama, do not mention anything about the baby’. It was because there was only one baby, not three.”
KR then was taken into her employers’ house in Taichung. It was a big house with five storey and eight cats. Both Madam and Sir were professors at a private university in Taichung. They were in their late forties, but they had a four months old daughter. Ama lived nearby; her house was also five storey high. KR worked at Sir and Madam’s house, but sometimes on Saturday and Sunday she was lent to Ama (Madam’s mother) to clean her house. She did not have to cook; her jobs were cleaning and babysitting. Her salary is NT$ 17,000, but during the first seven months her salary was deducted and she received NT$ 3000 per month.
“I love my Madam and Sir here; they are so different than my employers in Singapore. Madam always asked me what I wanted to eat and she bought it for me. I sat with them at the dinner table. If we were eating out in restaurants I was free to choose whatever I wanted to eat from the menu, no matter how much the price was. Every night we would take a stroll around the neighbourhood with the baby.”
In general KR’s work environment was quite comfortable, but KR admitted that she often had conflicts with Sir.
“Sir hated housekeepers, whatever their nationality is. He looked down on people who are doing low class jobs such as housekeepers or labours. He thought it was because these people were stupid and lazy they got stuck doing unrespectable jobs. He didn’t think some of us didn’t have choices. He was very arrogant to me. His entire family was like that. When they took me to visit his relatives in Taipei, I saw they treated the Taipei housekeeper really badly. She didn’t eat the same food as the family; her food was only rice and vegetables. I was so nervous whenever they took me to Taipei.”
Sir always complained about KR and wanted to take her back to the agency. In order to do so they would have to ask Ama to redo all the documents to get a replacement for KR. He considered this as too much troubles and decided to give up the idea. KR’s first four months in Taiwan was very tough, she cried every night because of tired working hard every day and being bullied by Sir.
“Sir was so mean to me, I always felt uncomfortable whenever I was around him. Sir was much disciplined toward his daughter; she wasn’t allowed to eat much because Sir didn’t want her to get fat. Baby often cried because she felt hungry, so I secretly fed her more food. Sometimes Baby cried to ask for her daddy’s attention, but instead of playing with her Sir told me to take her away. Every morning I had to carry all of his briefcases to the car. He had five briefcases plus books; I had to carry them all from third floor to the car while he didn’t have anything on his hands.”
Fortunately Madam sensed this situation and talked with her husband. In a way she disciplined him.
“Madam said to Sir ‘if you don’t like KR doing the chores, then you do it yourself. If you want to send her back to the agency, you do it and deal with the paper work. If we can’t get a housekeeper, then you’ll stay to babysit our daughter’. Since that Sir’s attitude changed. He still disliked me, but at least he behaved well in front of his wife. He’d play with Baby and he carried his own bags. Sir thought because he paid my salary he could do anything to me. But Madam was different; Madam always helped me whenever she could. I have a huge respect for Madam.”
Madam and Sir completely understood that as a Muslim KR could not eat pork and must pray five times a day. Madam found out that there were big supermarkets in Taichung that sold halal meat and since that their family only bought halal meat. KR was given a room on the fifth floor, but because she had to babysit on the second floor she was unable to pray five times a day.
“The nursery was in the second floor and I couldn’t leave the baby even for few minutes. So I combined all prayers at night time. I know it was not encouraged in our religion, but I didn’t have any other option.”
KR’s job started at six thirty in the morning. She woke up and went downstairs. Madam would prepare breakfast for the family, KR ate first and while they were having breakfast KR cleaned the house and the cats’ litter.
“First floor was living room, dining room and kitchen. Second floor was the nursery where the baby stayed during the day because at night she slept with her parents. Third floor served as study rooms for Madam and Sir. Fourth floor had master bedroom and guess bedroom. Fifth floor was my room and a terrace for drying laundry. Bathrooms were in second and fourth floor. I couldn’t use the one in third floor, it was the master bathroom, so I used the one in second floor.”
“In the morning I cleaned the house as much as I could. We had eight cats and their hair was everywhere. The house actually belonged to the cats. I had to vacuum the floor, carpets, drapes, everything! Madam would tell me if they were going to leave for work in an hour so I immediately stopped cleaning and took a shower. They left around nine and my duty as a babysitter began. I stayed on the second floor with the baby, if Madam said the baby must not fall asleep, then I must played with her until evening ten o’clock until Madam or Sir came home. When they arrived I continued cleaning the house until eleven o’clock. After that I showered, prayed, and finally went to bed at twelve midnight.”
KR ate dinner with her employers around ten o’clock at night, they would go outside for dinner. If Madam came home early, she would cook for the family. She cooked a big dinner so she could spare some for KR’s next day’s lunch. KR’s lunch usually was leftover from last night’s dinner that she could just reheat using the microwave oven. They also visited Ama four times a week to have dinner with her. KR said Ama was a nice lady even though she sometimes could be fussy.
“Sir and Madam often came home for few hours in the noon or afternoon, but their schedules were not regular. During the day I wasn’t allowed to use my mobile phone or do anything except looking after their baby.”
KR claimed that in a way she enjoyed working in Taiwan more than in Singapore. When she was in Singapore she could not leave the apartment at all; Ma’am did not allow her to have any contact with anybody. The only time she went out in Singapore was when she was about to return to Indonesia and had to buy a new luggage. In Taiwan although KR could not go out to socialize with other Indonesians, every night she would go out to take a stroll with her employers and the baby, so in a way KR could familiarize with her surroundings.
A pengajian in Taichung Mosque (photo: Laraswati Ariadne Anwar, 2013)
June 1st 2012 KR’s contract finished and she had to return to Indonesia. Her employers offered her to come back and work for them again. They offered KR to look after Ama since the baby was already three years old at that time, and Ama’s health condition went down drastically. KR felt she and her employers already had good relationship and received the offer gladly. June 28th 2012 KR returned to Taiwan to work with the same family.
“Now I stay with Ama, she lives only fifteen minutes away from Sir and Madam. Ama is physically fit, but she forgets many things now. I must regulate her medication schedule and cut her food to small pieces. Twice a week I ride my bicycle to Sir and Madam’s house, where I clean the entire five floors. Baby is in pre-school until five o’clock in the afternoon, Sir or Madam will pick her up. But if Baby is sick I will have to look after her.”
KR says that she is older and smarter now, plus she is more independent. Taiwan’s weather often makes KR fell ill such as fever or cold, she has to go out alone to a hospital or a clinic. From there she learned how to use her health insurance and how to handle with documents. She cannot compare Taiwan’s migrant workers protection care with Singapore’s because when she was in Singapore she was still very naïve.
KR also has a different plan now; she wants to go to school in Taiwan. She explained to Sir and Madam before finishing her first contract that the Indonesian consulate had an Open University programme and she wanted to enroll. Sir and Madam support the idea as long it will not interfere with her work. When she returned to Taiwan KR registered and now is taking course on Communication.
“Madam, Sir, and Ama are really supporting my decision to join the Open University. Sir now sees me a bit differently; he thinks I’m different from regular workers now. Ama’s children in Taipei and Kaohsiung also know about this. They called me and asked about this programmed, so I explained to them. They are really supportive and told me to study hard.”
At first KR thought that she would only need to go out every six months to take semester examination. But it turns out that she has to go out every week. The Open University in Taichung has eleven students enroll in its Communication department; therefore they must meet at least every two weeks to discuss the class. Madam and Sir being educators themselves understand this situation and so does Ama. They allow KR to go out whenever it is necessary for her to discuss the class. Usually the discussion occurs in one of the warungs nearby Pyramid.
“Now I go out every week, usually Friday and Sunday for two hours to meet with my classmates, sometimes I go out more than that. Ama does not reduce my salary. I go out solely to study with my classmates, not to do stupid things and Ama realizes that completely. But Madam once said that if Ama’s health is dropping I may not be able to go out as much as I do now.”
KR’s employers are devout Christians, so they go to church every Sunday. This means that KR can go to the mosque to pray every Sunday. She stays there for three hours and then goes home before Ama comes back from church. Sometimes after praying KR goes to Pyramid to send money, eat Indonesian food and buy some instant noodles to take home.
Aside from her classmates, KR does not have many Indonesian friends in Taiwan. She usually goes out alone, when she is with her classmates they are only discussing classes because all of her classmates are workers and they have limited time to go out. KR does not join any Indonesian workers organization because she thinks it does not give her any benefit.
“Many organizations would throw concerts or parties during Independence Day, Christmas, or Ied Mubarak. Sometimes they organize a tour to a tourist spot in Taiwan. I’m not interested in that, I only want to work hard and study harder.”
In KR’s opinion she is proud that Indonesian workers are sought after in Taiwan, to her this shows that Indonesian workers have better qualities than other migrant workers. She regrets that there are not enough holidays for them while working here. KR expresses that she actually is quite uncomfortable seeing the way of many Indonesian workers dressed in Taiwan.
“I think it’s because I know who they are; they are housekeepers like me. They also come from small villages like me and many of them are more uneducated than me, I was lucky I finished high school. Seeing them in miniskirts and revealing clothes just doesn’t seem right to me. It’s okay to wear sexy clothes if they’re pretty like film stars, but they’re not.”
KR always dresses politely when she goes outside. Her employers are also always dress politely. Madam never wears short pants or skirt, her hemline always falls right over her knees. KR said that her employers do not like how many Indonesian workers dress when they go out, too vulgar so they speak, especially when people know that they are housekeepers or labours.
“The entire family always dresses formally. When they pass Pyramid they always say that the migrant workers dress so out there. The workers’ attitudes are so vulgar like laughing loudly, couples behaving inappropriately in public. Whenever I’m going out my employers always tell me not to get too close with other workers, fearing I’ll get influenced by them. Housekeepers should not dress that vulgar, especially in public.”
She says many Taiwanese would ask her questions such as “if you’re Indonesian, how come you don’t dress like other Indonesians?”, “how do Indonesian Muslims pray?”, “why can’t you eat pork?”, etc. KR says most of the time Taiwanese like her and often compare her to their Indonesian housekeepers; therefore she opines that Indonesian workers have quite a good reputation in term of employment.
“Whenever they ask me these questions I always answered that us Indonesians are different from each other. Many of us are Muslims but we might have different approach to religion, so please don’t think that all of us are the same nor judge other Indonesians just by comparing them to me. But they like Indonesians more than Filipinos or Vietnamese because we are polite.”
According to KR Indonesians are docile and obedient, very different than Filipinos or Vietnamese. Filipinos and Vietnamese workers are known to be assertive; if they disagree with their employers, they do not have any problems expressing their disagreement. For KR it gives benefits to many Indonesians because it provides jobs for them. But KR still disagrees when some Indonesians can be too docile.
“We have medical check-ups every three month. A driver from the agency comes and picks me up along with other Indonesian girls and takes us to the hospital. In the hospital I listen to the other girls’ conversations. Many of them complain about their works; mean employers, not enough food, not enough rest, and no holidays. But none of them complains to their agents or call 1955 hotline or even discuss it with their employers. If a worker is sick, the employers will not have anybody to help around, so it’s actually the employer’s loss. Their [workers] mentality is how to gain as much benefit as they can with limited resources. They’re afraid if they complain they’ll get in troubles and make them not able to send money home, so they’re just surrender to the situation. I don’t like this kind of mentality. We are here to work and Taiwanese government actually provides protection for us, so we deserve good treatments. This surrender attitude is our advantage and disadvantage.”
“There was this girl who ran away during the medical check-up. She was in the same minivan with me and during the ride to hospital she told us her story. She took care of an old man who suffered from Alzheimer. This old man was mean to her because he forgot many things so sometimes he hit her. Because he had Alzheimer, it was not considered a crime, but a sickness. This girl couldn’t prove anything to her agency or Bureau of Labour Affair, so she felt stuck and unhappy. When we finished our medical check-up, she disappeared.”
Another runaway case happened to an Indonesian girl working on KR’s next door neighbour.
“When I was still working for Madam and Sir, there was this Indonesian girl living next door named Darmi who took care of an old Grandma. Grandma was nice to Madam, but very mean to Darmi. In the morning Darmi only ate one piece of bread and a glass of water, nothing else. At night she had to wait until Grandma finished eating before she could eat, her dinner was only a half bowl of rice and vegetables. Besides that Grandma was also very fussy and told Darmi to do many things. Madam often felt sorry for Darmi, she told me to smuggle some food for her. I gave her some food like sandwiches or triangle rice [Japanese onigiri] when we were waiting for garbage truck in the morning. One morning when Grandma was still asleep, Darmi ran away. I never heard from her again.”
KR said that there are several illegal agencies that offer higher payment for runaways. They promise the workers to get them better jobs and salaries, but without insurance or warranty. Some of the runaways do not even have passports and Alien Residence Certificate (ARC) with them because they are kept by their employers.
“Some of my friends said it’s good to be runaways. But when I asked them about safety and health insurance or how are we going back to Indonesia, they only answered ‘I have no idea’.”
Filipinos and Vietnamese workers are known to be bold; if they think the employers and the agency are not helping their problems, they do not hesitate to change agency and employment. Indonesian workers are still afraid to act boldly as they do not want to create further conflict. The only think in their minds is to provide income for their families back home.
KR’s employers have been to Indonesia, they went to the islands of Kalimantan and Bali. Madam told KR once that she actually loves traveling to Indonesia. Madam makes sure that whenever she cooks or orders food for KR there will not be wine or pork inside. In general she does not ask KR to change herself.
“Madam, Ama, and my employers in general give me freedom to be who I am. They allow me to pray five times a day now, since Ama does not need constant attention like the baby. At first they were surprised with the idea of fasting for a month. Madam asked me why I had to do that or if it will affect my health. I said it’s an obligation for each Muslim to fast for a month every year. I’ve been doing that since I was small and it’ll not affect my health or energy doing work. Madam understood that. See? If you have the courage to talk to your employers, they’ll allow you to do things.”
After finished fasting for a month, Madam and Sir allowed KR to go pray at the mosque for the celebration of Ied Mubarak. At night they also treated her to a restaurant to celebrate her holy day. KR feels so lucky to have educated employers that fully understand her right and needs. KR now is more comfortable living abroad than in Indonesia.
“I still prefer living in Taiwan than in Indonesia even I’m working as a housekeeper. Everything is safe and convenient. I don’t have to worry about transportation or corruption. When I go to a hospital in here I will get equal treatment, the same when I do visa or ARC. But in Indonesia everything is so difficult, especially if you come from lower class background like me. So many briberies, inconveniency and bad transportations, I feel everything is so gloomy in Indonesia. If only Indonesians know discipline like Taiwanese.”
The other good thing about Taiwan than KR likes is public etiquette. When a girl walks on a street in Indonesia, sometimes men would whistle or give cat calls. But such things do not happen in Taiwan which makes KR feels comfortable running errands in Taiwan as Taiwan is much more organized; everything works the way it supposed to be. The thing KR misses about Indonesia is the nature; mountains, rivers, lakes, and other natural tourisms. This is because KR’s employers rarely take her for outdoor adventures; therefore KR is not familiar with Taiwan’s natural beauty. KR also misses the different ethnic groups in Indonesia that gives richness to the culture. There are so many cultural activities and celebrations in Indonesia that Taiwan does not have.
Right now KR wishes that she can stay to work with the same employers for six years and finish her Open University education in four. The other thing she wishes is for Taiwan government to issue a monthly holiday for housekeepers because so far holiday is an agreement between the agent, employer, and worker, therefore there are many housekeepers out there who never have the chance to enjoy holiday. But so far she feels blessed and content with her work and education process.
From the stories above along with the information I received from my informants and Indonesian workers that I met, I found out that for most of female Indonesian workers Taiwan is their second or third country. Female workers tend to have worked in other places before. Most of them have worked in Saudi Arabia; many have also worked in Singapore and Malaysia as well. They switched to Taiwan because Taiwan has a good reputation in the protection of workers’ right. Many of these ladies said that Taiwan might not offer salary as high as Saudi Arabia, the salary received by a housekeeper in Taiwan is NT$ 17,000 whilst in Saudi Arabia they could receive double or even triple amount of money. But Saudi Arabia’s law system does not offer any protection for migrant workers, so it is better to work in Taiwan with less salary but better protection.
All twenty female workers that I talked to admitted that they came from lower class family. Eighteen grew up with financial problems, saying that their parents did not have enough many to support for their education. One worker has a diploma in Civil Engineering, but she quit working to raise her children. After her husband’s death and failure to maintain her small business, she was left with the only option to come to Taiwan as a migrant worker. One worker was an exception; Taiwan is her first migrant working experience. She has to support her two daughters after her divorce. Many of my female respondents and informants are responsible of supporting their entire families; meaning that they have parents and children depending on their incomes. This is because many of these women are divorced or abandoned by their husbands. The women only mentioned that their husbands ran away with much younger women after receiving their wives’ salaries, or some of them simply could not stand having their wives away from them and asked for divorce. Unfortunately I could not dig deeper as many female workers were uncomfortable exposing what they consider as personal shame.
Female workers are more vulnerable compared to male workers. Working in domestic sector is difficult to be constantly monitored by IETO and CLA, therefore most of migrant workers abuse happen in domestic sector. Female workers are very isolated from their peers. They are rarely allowed to go out; KR’s story is an exception. Many female workers have similar stories like Tika’s where their employers rather have them stay at home than go out, even when they have spare time. It is more difficult for a female worker to strike a friendship with other female worker as they rarely hang out. Some might able to chat for few minutes in the afternoon when are walking senior citizens at the park, or when they throw garbage at night.
Most of the time female workers are closer to their peers who come from the same agency with them. They lived together in the dorm prior coming to Taiwan and became friends. Their friendship continue after they arrived in Taiwan and taken to different households. Facebook is the number one media to stay in touch with friends. Tika and several other workers said that their close friends are those who were in the same agencies with them. They routinely update each other’s status in Facebook. They do not talk about their problems in Facebook timeline, but rather in personal inboxes. A female worker’s Facebook is mostly active on midnight, before she goes to bed. During the day her Facebook is mostly inactive. [ ]
10 November 2013
* Master of Arts in History, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan.
F o o t n o t e s
 Semarang State University is a university located in Semarang, capital city of Central Java Province. It was a teacher’s training college before developed into a full university,
......currently ranks as number 31 in Indonesia’s top university list. http://unnes.ac.id/
 Chamberlain, Gethin. Saudi Arabia’s treatment of foreign workers under fire after beheading of Sri Lankan maid. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
 Fanani, Muhammad. Janji Sejoli di Toko Abadi (Love Commitment at Abadi Shop). Tempo Magazine, 15 April 2007. An article about lesbian behavior amongst female Indonesian
......migrant workers in Hong Kong.
 Combining all five prayers into one is actually not encouraged in Islam, but it is allowed during emergency circumstances such as during war or while traveling at a long distance.
 Open University (Indonesian: Universitas Terbuka) is a school programme developed by the Indonesian Ministry of Education where students can enroll classes from a distant.
......The programme offers several courses with much cheaper tuition fee in compare to regular universities. Open University practices independent learning method where class
......materials are sent to the students and they can discuss it online every week or every month. http://www.ut.ac.id/tentang-ut/visi-a-misi.html
 Human Rights Watch. Saudi Arabia: Protect Migrant Workers’ Rights! Retrieved 13 August 2013.