The now infamous maid, Nirmala Bonet, from Tuapakas, an isolated village in the desperately poor region of West Timor, had left Indonesia last year in the hope of earning a decent wage to help her parents.

Nirmala was just one of several hundred thousand Indonesians who flee poor rural areas in search of work in parts of Asia and the Middle East each year.

About two million Indonesians, poorly educated and mostly unskilled labourers, are now working in comparatively well paid jobs as maids, drivers and construction workers in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, according to official figures.

With 40 million Indonesians unemployed, out of population of 220 million, such jobs are highly coveted.

Indonesia's foreign workers send home almost one billion dollars every year through banks but bring home even more privately, says Dina Suprihatin from the Migrant Workers' Cooperative.

Remittances sent home by migrant workers are one of the highest earners of foreign exchange after gas, oil and tourism industries.

Escaping poverty

But for many, the opportunity to escape rural poverty and unemployment becomes too high a price to pay.

Several months after being employed as a housemaid by a Malaysian family, Nirmala was discovered by a security guard. She had a horribly swollen and bleeding face.

She told local reporters that her 35-year-old boss, Yim Pek Ha, burnt her with boiling water and an iron whenever she made mistakes cleaning the house. 

The case has provoked such public outrage that the Malaysian Prime Minister, Abd Allah Ahmad Badawi, promised to punish the perpetrators of such "heinous crimes".

Protesters tried to remove barbed
wire at presidential palace in Jakarta

Meanwhile, last week, Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri ordered her officials to finance a trip for Nirmala's mother, Martha Toni Bonet, to visit her daughter in hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"Nirmala is not an animal," read one headline, quoting Martha Toni Bonet, beside a photo of her breaking down as she met her daughter.

During one week last October, a dozen women arrived at Jakarta's Sutanto police hospital in East Jakarta. They had been beaten, were severely depressed and, in one case, a woman was raped while working overseas.

Following this spate of reports, several political and religious leaders, such as assembly speaker Amien Rais, began calling for a moratorium on the export of Indonesia's migrant workers.

But the move was curtailed when hundreds of successful migrant workers demonstrated against the proposal arguing they needed work.

Fleeing terrible treatment

But the physical toll on young women is high, particularly for the majority who work as unskilled housemaids.

At least 250 women fleeing beatings, psychological stress and even rapes while working in Southeast Asia and the Middle East arrive at Sutanto's emergency ward each year says Dr Febiani, the head of the hospital's domestic violence unit.

"The government sees these women as just a tool to make money. If the women get work overseas it means they don't have to have a proper policy to deal with unemployment, or how to improve the economy"

Dina Suprihatin, 
Migrant Workers' Cooperative

Almost all of them come from 330,000 unskilled female workers employed in Southeast Asia and the Middle East annually, says the hospital. Only 22,000 female workers sent abroad in 2002 were skilled according to Labour Ministry figures.

But labour activists say abuse levels, particularly towards maids, are far higher.

Dina Nuryati from Fobumi, a non-government group that assists migrant workers, estimates that dozens of women who returned from working overseas had been raped but that many are too ashamed to admit it.

"We see a lot of cases of cruelty and abuse at Sutanto hospital, I think people do this because they feel they've bought their maids so they feel they have the right to do anything," says Nuryati.

Many of the women who report to Sutanto hospital only come because they are persuaded to do so by labour activists or airport officials at Jakarta's special designated airport terminal for migrant workers, points out Nuryati.

Many more never report their cases to Indonesian embassies overseas nor to police when they return home she says.

No paycheck

Apart from physical and sexual abuse, many of the migrant workers are not paid and others are injured or killed during work accidents.

Last year alone, 85 maids died in Singapore after they fell from their apartments says Nuryati. Most were trying to hand out heavy loads of washing on drying sticks from apartment balconies or were cleaning windows, she adds.

And hundreds of prospective and current migrant workers have complained to labour agencies, as well as Indonesian embassies, that either the labour company cheated them out of their pay, or their bosses refused to pay them.

Moreover, an unknown number of women promised jobs as maids or waitresses are trafficked into Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan and then forced to work as prostitutes. 

Domestic helpers protest possible
t
ax on tiny salaries in Hong Kong

Last year, Makdum Tahir, the Indonesian consul-general in Kota Kinabalu, a town in Sabah, Malaysia, said he negotiated to free around 500 women who had been smuggled from adjacent Kalimantan, had their passports taken and were forced to pay off their smuggling debts through prostitution.

According to non-government groups lobbying on behalf of migrant workers, Indonesian labourers, particularly women, often suffer harsh working conditions and are frequently abused because the Indonesian government has been lax in protecting their rights.

"The government sees these women as just a tool to make money. If the women get work overseas it means they don't have to have a proper policy to deal with unemployment, or have to improve the economy," says Dina Suprihatin, from the Migrant Workers' Cooperative.

The Labour Ministry makes money from the workers because employee agencies have to pay licence fees to be granted permission to send workers overseas, and pay a $15 fee to send each woman out of the country, points out Suprihatin.

Suprihatin also accuses the Labour Ministry of colluding with labour companies, which have little interest in abiding by their contracts.

The Labour Ministry denies it has failed to protect Indonesia's migrant workers.

Lack of protection

Officials from the ministry argue they have been lobbying hard on behalf of its Indonesian workers, talking to foreign ministers about the lack of rights for Indonesian workers, issuing a new ministerial regulation on the exporting of migrant workers and just this month they signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia.

"Indonesian workers often encounter abuses at every stage of the migration cycle, but this accord [with Malaysia]treats them like tradable goods, with almost no guarantees for their rights"

LaShawn R Jefferson,
executive director,
women's rights division of Human Rights Watch

"There are so many forms of protection trying to be established by the Indonesian government," says Andes Marjono, Director of the Protection and Advocacy division.

However the memorandum has come under fire from US based Human Rights Watch, which points out that since workers' visas are tied to their employers it makes it difficult for them to report abuses or escape.

Workers who escape are immediately considered illegal workers and can be deported.

"Indonesian workers often encounter abuses at every stage of the migration cycle, but this accord treats them like tradable goods, with almost no guarantees for their rights," said LaShawn R Jefferson, executive director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch.

Black books

Marjono points out that the ministry is also blacklisting abusive employers.

But this is not much use to the young girls who are posted to positions by Indonesian labour companies who care little which company is blacklisted, says labour activist Wahyu Susilo.

Such an agreement does not protect workers against abuse or from being sold as sex slaves.

After all this government lobbying, working conditions for maids in every country except Hong Kong, have not been regulated - they have to work seven days a week, and have no limit to the number of hours worked, says Nuryati.

In Hong Kong, house cleaners have set hours, have one day off a week and can take their problems with employers to a government-established claims board.

The Migrant Workers Cooperative and other non-government groups have drawn up a special law dealing with migrant workers.

But with two rounds of presidential elections in July and September, few politicians are hopeful that it will be passed this year.