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A Blood Stained Letter to the President

October 20, 2011

Second in a series of posts about the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, 5-9 October 2011

With no opportunities to earn money in her village in Indonesia, Minah leaves her four year old child with her mother and goes to Hong Kong as a migrant worker. One of her duties is to care for her employer’s five dogs. Whenever she has a moment she works on a letter she is writing to the President of Indonesia, telling him about her situation and how she yearns to go back to school.

When one of the dogs falls ill, Minah is blamed. She is beaten and given no food for three days. By the third day she is overwhelmed by hunger, and eats a little of the dog food. She lies on her mattress in the storeroom and tries to continue writing the letter, but falls asleep from exhaustion, holding the letter in her hand. She doesn’t hear the alarm indicating it is time to feed the dogs, and the hungry animals come into the storeroom. They smell the dog food on her hand, and advance towards her …

This is a partial synopsis of the title story in A Blood Stained Letter to the President, a book of short stories about the experiences of migrant workers in Hong Kong. The book became a best seller, and a copy was given to President Yudhoyono, although the government has yet to respond. The author, Jaladara, was one of the presenters at the Ubud Writers Festival, in the session Under the Rug, about the lives of maids, labourers and migrant workers. The story is included in Cultivate the Land Within, A Bilingual Anthology of Indonesian Writing (pictured), with an English translation by Toni Pollard.

Seven million Indonesians are migrant workers in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and of these, five million are women, mostly domestic workers. Some have good employers and do well, but many are abused, and some come home in coffins. Some lose most of their earnings to unscrupulous employment agencies, and the government service for migrant workers exists mainly to grab a share of their income.

Another writer at the session was Nessa Kartika, who spent four years as a maid in Singapore. Like most such servants, she worked from 6 am to midnight every day, with no days off, and was not allowed to go out of the house. However her employers were relatively good to her, and allowed her to use their computer while she minded their toddler. She contacted other workers through Facebook, and wrote stories based on their experiences. She and another maid working in Hong Kong produced a book of such stories dealing with issues like long-distance love, loyalty, virginity, abusive employers and rape. Hoping to break the stereotype of domestic workers as “dumb”, she operates a blog with the tagline “A maid can also write.”

Rida Fitria volunteers at an NGO supporting migrant workers. Observing that laws protecting workers exist but are not applied, she tried to get her message across by writing a novel about a worker who suffers terrible abuse from her employer. An extract from the novel is included in the anthology mentioned above.

The other presenter at the session was journalist Sandi Firly, who tackles a different issue – coal mining in South Kalimantan, where houses are covered in coal dust, and people die every week, hit by speeding coal trucks using the main road. His articles for the press achieved little, so he wrote a novel in the hope that it would touch people more deeply. An extract is included in the anthology.

There seems little prospect of greater government protection for migrant workers and those affected by industries such as coal. But the session ended on a hopeful note, which arose from the role of many maids as second mothers. Will their employers’ children become people who respect domestic workers and even support their fight for human rights?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ritamay Roberts permalink
    October 20, 2011 5:05 pm

    Thank you for bringing this astounding truth to our attention, Bryce.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    October 23, 2011 9:05 am

    Comment from Alvira EA Iljas: Hi Bryce, I just read your article about migrant workers. It is a human tragedy, probably there are more similar stories, but who cares? Indonesia is a rich county, you know very well the huge gold mine in Papua, and many other mines. And yet many Indonesian ladies have no other choice but to work as slaves in many foreign countries, because they have no solution to support their life. Maybe you have heard the Indonesian words “Ayam mati di lumbung”. It is the reflection of the many people who live in desperation in a rich country. (Ayam mati di lumbung = The chicken dies in the rice barn.)

  3. October 30, 2011 6:29 pm

    Thank you guys for bringing our voice!

  4. Bryce permalink*
    October 31, 2011 9:06 am

    I was moved by your presentation at the Festival, and admire your work for the rights of migrant workers. I hope the Indonesian Government does respond to your ‘letter’ and does more to protect workers.

  5. Nessa Kartika permalink
    August 15, 2012 1:14 pm

    Thank you, Bryce 🙂

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