JAKARTA, 20 March 2017:

Indonesia today said it would continue to send domestic helpers overseas, in an about-turn welcomed by campaigners who said it would help prevent women falling prey to human trafficking.

Thousands of Indonesian women travel to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia every year to become maids, attracted by promises of higher salaries – despite reports of widespread abuses and near slave-like living conditions.

Jakarta had previously said it would stop sending maids overseas from this year, on the grounds of protecting the women, sparking concerns it would push more poor Indonesians desperate for jobs into illegal migration.

However a senior official at the Manpower Ministry said Jakarta would not go ahead with the ban but it has been in talks with countries to ensure Indonesian maids are treated in a “humane” way.

“We are not stopping Indonesians going overseas to become domestic workers but we want better protection for them,” said Soes Hindharno, director for the protection and placement of Indonesian migrant workers abroad.

He said this includes preventing what he called “multi-tasking work” by Indonesian maids to reduce exploitation.

“If they are housekeepers, they are housekeepers – they clean, cook and iron. If they are babysitters, they are babysitters – you can’t ask a babysitter to bathe your dog.”

Currently, Indonesian women who work as maids abroad are required to stay at the home of their employer, handling tasks from cleaning to looking after children or the elderly – a rule activists say making them vulnerable to abuse.

Migrant activists welcomed the decision, but said more needed to be done to combat human trafficking including ensuring women aware of their rights when leaving for work overseas.

“It is a basic right to go abroad to work. If the government stops this, we will only see more human trafficking cases,” said Mulyadi, a co-founder of rights group Migrant Care, who like many Indonesian goes by one name.

Indonesia since 2015 has banned women from going to 21 Middle Eastern countries following a series of abuse cases but high-demand for maids has encouraged traffickers to find ways around the curbs.

Hindharno said the Middle East ban would stay in place.

Domestic helpers make up more than a third of the six million Indonesian working abroad.

Meanwhile, an Indian woman rescued from sex slavery in Saudi Arabia was brought back to her hometown in Gujarat yesterday amid concerns traffickers are widening their net to new parts of India.

Two agents – one in Gujarat and another in Mumbai – have been arrested and the search is on for more agents, officials said.

The woman, 35, had flown to Dubai about a year ago on the promise of a housemaid’s job and a monthly salary of about 40,000 Indian rupees.

She was, however, sold to another employer in the Saudi capital Riyadh where she was repeatedly raped and abused, a state minister said. She is currently recuperating at a public hospital in the western state of Gujarat.

Campaigners said most trafficking cases to the Gulf region have so far been from southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and rarely from other parts of the country.

“It is presumed that most cases of trafficking to the Gulf are from southern states. We are finding names of more agents in Gujarat from those arrested,” said Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, education minister in Gujarat.

“Police have launched a major investigation. We will alert other states too if we find links to them.”

Chudasama had alerted government officials and the police to the case after he read about the woman’s plight in The Times of India newspaper.

While police teams from Gujarat and Mumbai swooped on agents who had lured the woman to Dubai, an Indian politician with business interests in Saudi Arabia – Thopali Sriniwas – contacted the Indian embassy there.

This was the second case of a Gujarat woman that he helped return to her homeland in less than a month.

Of an estimated six million Indian migrants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, domestic workers are among the most exploited, campaigners say.

“Housemaids are treated like cattle here. This woman didn’t even know where she was when I asked her location. She kept crying to be saved. India should ban sending housemaids to the Gulf,” Sriniwas said.

In the woman’s hometown of Dholka, officials are dealing with what they said is their first case of human trafficking.

“We have information that there could be more women who have been trafficked to the Gulf nations. This is a new development for us,” said Rituraj Desai, deputy in the Dholka district office.

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