Migrant workers receive some protections, call for more, in Egypt

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Indonesians, who were evacuated from Egypt, arrive at the airport in Jakarta in February 2011. Indonesians make up a large share of Egypt's domestic workers and have been subject to abuse for years. (Photo by Supri Supri/Reuters.)

While Egyptians argue over the legacy of their revolution, one group is enjoying lives that are definitely better than they were.

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Foreign domestic workers. In the basement of the Indonesian embassy, a 28-year-old woman sits on a mattress in her polyester pajamas. Asked how much money she made in the nine years she was a domestic worker in Egypt, she slapped her hands together.

“None at all,” she said. “Year after year I asked for my wages, but my employer said, ‘later, later, later.’ For nine years. I felt sad and depressed because I came from Indonesia to work for my family. I am the bread-winner of my family."

The woman, who didn't want to be identified, was locked inside an Egyptian house for most of the past decade. Sometimes her employers didn’t give her food. Sometimes they beat her. Without money or contacts, she was afraid to escape.

“My employers knew that I was here alone. They knew for nine years that I was heartbroken, they knew I was heartbroken,” she said.

But last September her employers took her on a trip with them to the beach, and she finally got the opportunity to run away.

She had been so isolated that when she first arrived at the embassy in Cairo she didn’t know that there had been a revolution in Egypt. She thought Hosni Mubarak was still president. Now she’s one of five former domestic workers taking shelter while they seek their unpaid wages.

“When I got to the embassy I called my family,” the woman said. “They thought I was dead. My sister didn’t recognize my voice, my mother too. She didn’t recognize my voice.”

The woman laughed as she washed dishes with some of the other women in the embassy kitchen. Ironically, the revolution she'd never heard of may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to her.

Ali Andika Wardhana works for the Indonesian Embassy and said these days, he and his colleagues have more ability within the Egyptian government to help workers prosecute abusive employers.

“We are having direct access to the prosecutor’s office, only after the revolution. Before the revolution we didn’t have contact, but now we coordinate on things that matter to the migrant workers,” Wardhana said.

But the domestic workers who are getting are only those whose cases are so egregious they fall under Egypt’s new laws against human trafficking. The country’s labor law doesn’t recognize “domestic workers.”

In a villa in a wealthy suburb of Cairo, two Filipino women danced with some toddlers to childrens music. The toddlers’ father, a businessman who spoke on the condition he wouldn’t be named, employs three Filipinos to clean and care for the kids. They make about $400 a month, a lot of money in Egypt. The woman who never was paid — even if she had been paid would have only made $120 per month.

The businessman said having foreign domestic help is an open secret in Egypt.

“I wouldn’t mind signing a contract but I cannot sign a contract with ... someone who is working illegally,” the man said, “because (they come with) a student visa and they’re not allowed to work anyway.”

Their illegal status is why domestic workers are so susceptible to abuse, said Hossam Baghat. He’s the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and his group advocates changing Egypt’s discriminatory labor code.

“Effectively it removes this entire profession, this entire group of men and women, completely outside the realm of any legal protection,” Baghat said.

And no one knows how many foreign domestic workers actually live here. Estimates range from 5,000 to 80,000.

Back at the Indonesian embassy, the woman who escaped said she's sad about her experience in Egypt, but she’s not desperate. She’s retained a new lawyer and as soon as she gets her money, she hopes to return to Indonesia and get married. As for her former employers, if they’re not punished, she fears for the next Indonesian they might hire.

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