Sold into bondage in the new slave trade

Paul Kelly; 12/2009

The modern slave ship is a Boeing or an Airbus. Some weeks ago, long after midnight at Singapore airport’s Terminal 3, I witnessed a grim procession. There were at least 250 Indonesian women, all wearing headscarves, queuing in a long, neat double row to join a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, in the Middle East. There was no excitement in the faces of these travellers. I asked one of the women what was going on. She said they were bound for Saudi Arabia to work on two-year stints as housemaids and cleaners. Australia has fly-in, fly-out workers, who head to mine sites for two-week stints. Soldiers are posted overseas for six months. Anyone who’s done this work, or knows someone who has, will have heard that it’s hell on families. It’s a sacrifice, it can be risky, but the money’s good. What about going away for two years, on bad money? My guess is most of these women had children. My guess is their husbands, or families, ordered them to go.

The Australian; No Internet Text
Australia worries about the depth of Indonesia’s commitment in preventing asylum seekers moving down to Australia. Within Indonesia is growing concern that the Government is turning a blind eye as its own people are shipped, in huge numbers, into bondage.
It is true that Indonesia last year barred migrant workers from going to Malaysia and then Kuwait. Cases of Indonesian migrant housemaids being brutalised, raped or killed by their foreign masters had become so frequently reported and embarrassing that something had to be done.
Indonesia is now in talks with both countries to lift the bans. It needs to because unskilled workers send so much money home into the economy. More than six million Indonesians are working abroad. Most of them are women. Most are in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
The US State Department last year described Indonesia as “a major source of women, children and men trafficked for the purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation”.
It also reported on a trade within Indonesia of recruiting women and girls into sex slavery. The State Department cited cases of girls shipped to the Papua province on the promise of waitress work but forced into prostitution. In 2009, underage girls were rescued from illegal logging camps in West Kalimantan where they were working as prostitutes.
The US is much more courageous than Australia in taking on such matters. This damning information appeared on the US Embassy’s Indonesian website in June. It accused Indonesian immigration officials of taking bribes to allow large numbers of women to pass out of Jakarta without the proper paperwork.
It complained that police and military were “directly involved in the operation of brothels and fronts for prostitution, including establishments that exploited child sex trafficking victims”.
Soon after this report was released, the Indonesian embassy in Kuwait was overflowing as more than 600 migrant women workers sought protection.
These women had not arrived at the embassy as an organised group of protesters. They had turned up seeking sanctuary as individuals, or in small bands, complaining of physical and sexual abuse, or of non-payment of wages or being denied entitlements.
They were repatriated as spare seats became available on Garuda flights.
The agents who recruit migrant workers are in a more lucrative game than the people smugglers shifting Afghans and Iraqis on boats to Australia.
They make money by charging job-placement commission fees of up to $US3000 ($3300) and pay the airfares, which the workers must pay back. They  call this debt bondage. Some are sent directly into sex work, others by a more subtle process, working as housemaids but also forced to provide sexual services to their employers. Because they are often illegal workers, they have no redress against exploitation. Most are not raped or prostituted. The abuse is more insidious. No days off, no calls home.
Does any of this matter to Australia? If we are to be a good neighbour, it does.
The current — and long-standing — Australian diplomatic approach to Indonesia (the 1999 East Timor liberation aside) is to offer no public condemnation but to throw money at whatever the problem might be.
But sometimes a stern public word goes a long way. It turns out that Australia has an ambassador for people smuggling and people-trafficking issues. His name is Peter Woolcott. He was appointed by the Rudd Government in June. He hasn’t had much if anything to say on migrant worker enslavement so far.
If an ambassador’s skill is to smooth things over, that skill should extend to smoothing things over after he himself has handed out a clubbing.
That Indonesia did not charter flights to extricate its workers from Kuwait, instead making room as seats became available on commercial flights, shows a lack of regard for its own citizens. Australia knew about it. We should have condemned it. Numbers of female migrants working across Asia will only grow. The problem needs attention.
On December 29, Simon Crean, acting as Foreign Affairs Minister while Stephen Smith took holidays, issued a press release expressing deep concern on the deportation of Hmong refugees back to Laos from a refugee camp in Thailand.
Thailand and Laos are a long way away. Australia never dares make such strong statements in relation to Indonesia. Yet close media readers will note how often Indonesian officials slam us. We should slam them.
It need not get too willing, but too often our soft-shoed approach is based on consideration of their culture. We have a culture, too. True friendship is based on only one thing: Truly understanding each other.