One Yamaha scooter and two houses: my ‘ex-Saudi,’ ‘ex-Hong Kong,’ and ‘ex-Taiwan’ CV
The following narrative was constructed by Isabelle Cockel, based on an interview that she conducted with Wati, an Indonesian domestic worker in Taiwan.
It was in 2004 when I turned 16 that I decided to go to Saudi Arabia for work. There were people in my village who had worked abroad before. My neighbour told me when I turned 16 I could work in Saudi Arabia. I was brave, not afraid of leaving home. My family was poor; what my parents earned was enough to feed us, but we could not save. Our neighbour was a broker. She told me I would cook, clean, and look after children. She also told me about the salary, which was 15,000 Rupiah at that time. With the little money she gave me, I packed my clothes to go to Jakarta.
Over there, I stayed at a recruitment agency for three months to train. This involved speaking Arabic and cooking Arabic food. There were more than 200 trainees. The agency gave us a little money and provided meals and lodging, the cost of which, as well as the money given to me by my neighbour, was deducted from my salary after I started working in Saudi Arabia. At the end of my training, 25 people departed for Saudi Arabia, some of whom were from my village, and had been introduced by the same broker, my neighbour.
It was my first time going abroad and it took two flights to get to Saudi Arabia. We flew via Hong Kong and took an Emirates Airline from there to get to our destination. Everything was so strange over there! Their food was different, and they speak loudly as if telling people off. My employer had two children, one 11-year-old and one baby.
I got up at five in the morning to pray and started work at six am, cooking breakfast. After my employer went to work, I did laundry and looked after their baby. They came back from work around nine or ten pm for dinner. Arabic cuisine uses many ingredients and they have a good appetite. After dinner, they have tea and home-baked desserts. So I cooked a lot and learned from the wife how to bake their desserts. Whilst they had their dinner that I cooked, I had my own dinner at the same time in a different place.
I also did ironing. Arabic men wear thobes and women in public spaces wear niqabs. Children also wear them. All of these had to be ironed, which took a lot of time because of the size of the clothing. Their house was big so I did a lot of cleaning, too, cleaning toilets and mopping the floor every day. Fridays and Saturdays meant more work for me because the family parties they organised involved a lot of eating and, thus, more cooking and cleaning before and after their gathering.
They went shopping once a week and returned home with a lot of food. I sorted their shopping into the fridge. I could not get used to their food, so the employer bought me Indonesian ingredients and instant noodles from Indonesian grocery shops. There were many Indonesian grocery shops, one of which was close to their house. They also bought me clothes and toiletries. Employers paying for such costs was part of the contract, a requirement agreed on by the Saudi government.
My salary for the first three months was deducted by the Indonesian and Saudi brokers for my recruitment fee. After that, I was paid in cash and I signed on a pay slip. After receiving my payment, I went to the nearby Indonesian grocery shop and bought a phone card to call home from the shop. It cost 900 Rupiah for one phone card and lasted 30 minutes. Our employers didn’t allow us to have mobile phones. They thought we would get lazy and spend time on our phones. Between 2004 and 2006 in Saudi Arabia, I did not have any rest days. I slept little and was very tired, so I was very happy to go home. With the money I saved, I took a flight back home that was paid by my employer. I bought my mother a Yamaha scooter with the money I saved in two years.
I did not stay home for long. At that time, my brother was eleven and my sister was six. I had to help my parents pay for their school fees, so three months later, another broker arranged for me to go to Taiwan, where I could earn more money. I set off again for Jakarta for more training. Besides learning to cook Taiwanese cuisine and speak Mandarin and Taiwanese, I learned to take care of elderly patients. Returning from Saudi Arabia, I was an ‘ex-Arab;’ some trainees were ‘ex-Dubai,’ ‘ex-Hong Kong,’ or ‘ex-Taiwan.’ It took me three months to get my Taiwanese contract; some trainees waited for six months or one year. Having another contract meant more salary deductions for another recruitment fee. At that time, the deduction for a two to three year contract in Taiwan was fifteen months of salary.
In December 2006, I packed my clothes and Indonesian food, and arrived in Taiwan, another strange place. The food was strange but having worked in Taiwan four times since 2006, I have become used to it. I looked after a 94-year-old diabetes patient. I injected her with insulin every day, something I learned to do on my training course. Depending on when my employer was free to look after her mother, I had one day off each month. I learned to speak English from a Filipino worker, since she could not speak Mandarin.
I finished my contract in Taiwan in December 2009. Soon afterwards, I went to Hong Kong. For a contract in Hong Kong they would deduct six months’ salary. I did not like Hong Kong because we had to take a day off every week. If I had a day off, I would not get paid. I wanted to earn money. I left Hong Kong after six months when I had paid back my recruitment fee.
I returned to Taiwan for my fourth overseas contract. This time seven months’ salary was deducted. I worked there until my patient died. During our training, we were told that we should be prepared for this, and, if this happened, our broker would look for another employer for us. So I was taken back by my broker to wait for my next contract. There were other workers like me, all waiting for our next contract. Our broker provided meals and lodging and paid for our National Health Insurance. We cleaned their office but we didn’t get paid.
Then I got another contract to look after your mother until she died. After your mother died, I was transferred to my current employer, looking after her mother. I have been working for them since 2014. I used Google to search for news about Coronavirus. I also keep up with friends via their Facebook and TikTok. With the money I saved in Taiwan, I bought a piece of land for my mother and we built a house on it. I stayed with my mother in this house until I had saved enough money to buy a house for myself. My son is 5 years old now, soon he will go to school. I’ll have to save for his school fees, so I will continue to work in Taiwan.
Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.