When Dominique Strauss-Kahn was pulled off an airplane and arrested on charges of raping a hotel chambermaid, the West was reminded of the dangers domestic workers face in close quarters with their employers.
Now one Indonesian domestic worker, beheaded in Saudi Arabia after she was convicted of killing what she said was an abusive Saudi employer, has drawn international attention to the plight of domestic workers in the East.
Indonesian migrant labor advocates don't just blame Saudi Arabia for the controversial beheading of 54-year-old Ruyati binti Sapubi. They blame their native Indonesia, for not taking strong enough measures to protect its nation's migrant workers from abuse.
The Indonesian government does not protect migrants' rights, said Sumiati, an internationally renowned activist for Indonesian migrant workers' rights, based in Hong Kong.
Herself a domestic worker for a Chinese family in Hong Kong, Sumiati has advocated for Indonesian migrants since first arrived to work on the island in the late 1980s. At the Indonesian domestic workers' signature picnics, crowding Victoria Park and the walkway under the HSBC towers on the weekends, Sumiati started organizing domestic workers who felt they were being exploited by their bosses. Now she is known in the Hong Kong Indonesian migrant community as Mama Mia, and she has helped started two shelters for Indonesian women, often underpaid and physically or verbally abused by their bosses.
So many Indonesian domestic workers are abused by there employers-- what does the Indonesian government do, Mama Mia asked.
The Saudi government did not inform Indonesian authorities of their national's execution, which provoked Indonesia's Ministry of Labour to announce this week that they will impose a moratorium on the relocation of Indonesian migrant laborers to Saudi Arabia, starting August 1.
Although Riyadh's representatives in Indonesia have officially apologized for failing to inform Indonesia of the conviction, the Indonesian government plans to impose the ban until the nations sign an agreement on the treatment of migrants.
Mama Mia, who has high-ranking members of the Ministry on her mobile, says she will believe in the moratorium when it is finally imposed.
They haven't imposed the ban yet, Mama Mia said, The Ministry promises it will do it, but they haven't done it. We have already requested this for so many years. How many Indonesians are abused by employers? When they are working in Saudi Arabia, they are raped and left to just come back to Indonesia to tell the story.
It wouldn't be the first time the Indonesian government has not made good on promises to intercede on the behalf of its migrant domestic workers, nearly a million of which currently work in Saudi Arabia.
An article from South China Morning Post in July of last year, by the author of this IBTimes article, revealed that head hunters were bringing Indonesian domestic workers from villages to what are alleged as training centers in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, for months, sometimes a year at a time, where they were forbidden from leaving until they were shipped off to foreign destinations like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia to be domestic workers. They are often forbidden from contacting their families or anyone in the outside world.
Once in the foreign country, Indonesian domestic workers are expected to pay exorbitant finders fees to the agency that trains them and finds them employment. The fees often exceeding caps established by Indonesian and international law.
Because domestic workers often have no other way of paying off their debts to the agencies, many remain in hostile work environments until they are able to repay their debt.
Although the terms of the beheaded Indonesian worker's contract with her employer and domestic worker agency are unknown, one of the reasons why she confessed to killing her employer was reportedly because he refused to let her return to Indonesia.
Subsequent to the South China Morning Post scoop, the Speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives, Laode Ita, met with the South China Morning Post-cum-IBTimes reporter in Hong Kong. There, he verified that the Indonesian government was aware of the conditions described in the article and that the Indonesian government would make gestures to protect its workers abroad.
But the abuses persisted, unchecked by Saudi Arabia and the Indonesian government.
Later last year, a Saudi women confessed to torturing her Indonesian worker, also named Sumiati, burning her with an electric iron. Then, Mama Mia started a protest at Hong Kong's Saudi consulate.
We are all Muslim, that's fine, we are the same religion [as the Saudis]. But what do you do with our people- do you treat them like brothers and sisters, asked Hong Kong-based migrant advocate Mama Mia.
Photos of the Saudi-based migrant Sumiati, disfigured and in agony, shocked the Indonesian public, which in turn pressured the Indonesian government to take action against Saudi authorities.
Still, the moratorium on Indonesian domestics provoked by the beheading of Binti Sapubi represents the latest substantive measure to protect Indonesian migrants abroad.
Why now? The Indonesian government has less to lose from stopping the supply of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia now than in the past several years.
Despite a healthy economy, poverty is still a widespread problem in Indonesia that has traditionally demanded that migrant laborers go abroad to rake in foreign currency and alleviate government spending.
But things are looking up this year, as the world still grapples with the economic crisis of the past several years.
Over 17 percent of Indonesians lived below the poverty line in 2010, a number that has decreased by over four percent in 2011, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Not only are there less poor to employ, but the latest figures show there's less income to be made for the nation.
Indonesia is less economically dependent on Saudi remittances than some of its poor and populous neighbors. That gives Jakarta a bit more room for maneuver in protesting the widespread abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf, said John D. Ciorciari, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and Southeast Asian affairs expert.
Remittances to Indonesia equal about 1% of GDP, and about half of that comes from Indonesians working in Malaysia and Singapore. By contrast, remittances account for 12% of GDP in Bangladesh, 5% in Pakistan, and 4% in India--much of which comes from the Gulf.
Perhaps the moratorium is indeed a result of the overall dispensability of the Indonesia-Saudi Arabia domestic worker trade.
Mama Mia Sumiati says the world will know how Indonesia views its domestic workers on August 1, when Jakarta does or doesn't implement the proposed ban.
The Indonesian Mission to the United Nations in New York failed to comment at time of publication.