The tall man in his 30s, sitting on the aisle seat immediately in front of me, raises his voice belligerently toward the young Indonesian flight attendant. Apparently he doesn’t think his drink was served on time. The flight attendant kneels on the cabin floor and her hands together in front of her as though in prayer. I can see she is upset, she is trying to apologise, but he just keeps talking over her, her eyes now brimming with tears. She starts to move away and I touch her elbow and tell her “tidat apa apa”, don’t worry, you tried to serve, you can’t take responsibility for every bad tempered Bule[i]. Now she is crouching in the aisle beside me, says how she feels she has delivered bad service, her tears begin flowing and making dark spots on her bright red skirt. She is new to this work, she just can’t understand this man’s rudeness, she is trying to adjust to a new set of norms. The French man behind me hands her a tissue as she straightens and returns to the rear of the plane.
I chat with the attractive Indonesian women next to me. She is probably in her late twenties and has just been to visit a man in a small town in Wisconsin for 6 months. He is a machinist in a large factory. She met him on the internet, she hopes they will marry.
Next to her in the window seat of my row, there is another Indonesian woman, probably in her early thirties. She is using kerundung (the Muslim headscarf) and I am guessing she is one of several hundred “migrant workers” on this flight returning from “Arab Saudi”. The issue of migrant or “remittance” workers is something that interests and concerns me and I am trying to get time to figure out how I can engage with migrant workers in our ADPs so that some of the money they earn can help them to set up small businesses to provide ongoing support for themselves and their families after they return.
Through the woman next to me, I explain that I am involved in economic development work and would like to ask her some questions. She graciously agrees.
Her story is as follows. She went to Saudi Arabia as a migrant worker for two years but is returning after only four months. She explains she had to leave because her employer kept trying to rape her. She comes from a poor village in central Java and has three children. Her husband left her and now two of her children stay with her ex-husbands family and the third with her parents. She decided to find work overseas to earn money so that she could provide her children with an education and was expecting to be able to send back about USD$80 each month. To get a work placement overseas she registered with an Indonesian based Saudi employment agency. She didn’t receive any training before she left and was sent to a family in Saudi Arabia as a housekeeper. After several months she complained to the agency that the husband of her host family kept trying to rape her. They advised her to ask her employer for extra money and sleep with him. Rather than do that, she decided to come home to Indonesia. This means that for her 120 days work, away from her village, her children, everything familiar to her to a land which she didn’t not speak the language, she has only been paid USD $150. The balance was deducted by the agency to pay her original plane ticket. She seems resigned to things as they are and is looking forward to seeing her kids.
Because people smugglers only charge a month’s salary as opposed to 6 to 12 months charged by the “official agencies”, many migrant workers become “unofficial” which makes them even more vulnerable to potential abuse and exploitation. Impacts on the workers themselves can be life shattering. Men returning to villages with HIV and AIDS, naive village women who may have no rights or access to any outside help in a new country may be beaten by their hosts for failing to perform as expected or raped by household men. There are many stories of female workers returning with unwanted pregnancies and as a result, losing their husbands and becoming ostracised by their families. Money sent back by a married woman may be used to fund a second wife for her Muslim husband back in the village or to pay for celebrations, house extensions or assets that mostly need to be sold again, at a loss, within a few months of the migrant returning. Then the family is back to where it started and the migrant worker returns overseas again.
Throughout Asia issues surrounding migrant workers are not new. There are some 6 million Indonesian Migrant workers sending almost USD 10 billion home each year[ii]. It is Indonesia’s second largest source of foreign earnings, the number one earner in the Philippines and high in almost every Asian country. Governments are unwilling or unable to train workers in vocations or in their human rights or pass regulations to protect workers like the simple self sacrificing, brave village woman sitting on the plane next to me. She has the “life in all its fullness” clearly in mind for her children, and has been prepared to take almost unimaginable risks to “make that so” , we share the same aspiration and there must be something we can do together.
I remember a quote “In development work, we have learned more about how to measure poverty than how to reduce it. “[iii] But I think to myself but there is always something we can do.
I am flying on Qatar. Their logo is an Oryx , before now I had never heard of an Oryx, the magazine says it is a type of antelope but it looks like a goat to me. If you are starting an airline why would you pick an oversized goat for your logo? Which leads me reflect on flying Kangaroos.
I did have a real piece of luck on the previous Washington DC to Doha leg. I sat next to a Colonel who introduces himself to me as Dr. Bill. He is a member of the US Army and on his way to Doha to deliver lectures on emergency field medicine to military physicians working in Iraq. We become friends, talked philosophy, daughters, wars on Taliban, wars on poverty. When Dr. Bill retires he wants to work for an aid agency he thinks he could help introduce some US military systems thinking. I gave him my card and he gave me 6 tablets of Ambient . Now , Dr Bill explained to me each tablet has a half life of 3 hours so if you take a full tablet it will knock you out for 4 hours cold.
“The trick is” he says ,
“don’t take a tablet until you are about half an hour in the air and fairly sure the plane is not going to turn around and make an emergency landing. Because you won’t wake up and your friends will have to carry you off the plane. But after four hours you will wake up fresh as a daisy, no side effects, scouts honour.”
Now to a person in my position who at that point had not slept for 24 hours and still has many hours to travel and as one who doesn’t generally sleep on planes, Bill is a drug bearing gift from God. Unfortunately it is too late for me to take an Ambient on this leg, we only have 3 hours to go and I don’t have any friends to carry me off the plane to wake up somewhere in Doha.
After a 7 hour stopover in Doha ,we are onboard again for the 8 hour flight to Singapore. I wait for an hour to make sure we are not turning back and take just half a tablet.
I wake up 3 hours later after the most wonderful sleep, I can’t believe it. And I am full of life an bon ami that I go and sit beside a French women at the bulkhead . Her young son seems to have more arms than a Hindu deity and all of them in her breakfast. So I hold him while she eats and tell this delightful five month old boy about the wonders of the universe.
It turns out that the French woman’s husband is Indonesian and flies for Qatar but she doesn’t know anything about Oryx either.
The plane is getting ready to land and a woman’s voice makes an announcement which ends;
“and we hope you have a plentiful supply”
A plentiful supply of what?
I turn to the Chinese guy across the aisle from me, who has something to do with repairing electronic eyes on oil drilling equipment.
“What did she say?”
“She said we hope you had a freasant fright”
And I look around the small community of friends I have made during the flight and think that all in all it was a “freasant fright” partially made possible by the US Army.
Nairobi November 2009
[i] White person
[ii] Business in Asia Today – Sept 2, 2009
[iii] DR. MANUEL OROZCO Inter-American Dialogue Conference on Remittances and Millennium Development Goals, 2008