Ruyati beheading brought vain glory down to earth

Ruyati beheading brought vain glory down to earth

The Jakarta Post, Tuesday 28 June 2011, p. 2 (Insight)

B. Herry-Priyono, Jakarta | Tue, 06/28/2011 11:15 PM


In the old days, kings and queens employed jesters to bring them down to
earth. Court jesters acted as gadflies whose task was not confined to
providing amusement, but also to supply satire that often bit to the bones
of their masters. But such jesters may not be needed by the President of
Indonesia: not because there is no need for him to be in touch with
reality, but because jesters have many forms and faces. After a presuming
speech at the International Labor Conference on the protection of migrant
workers, the beheading of an Indonesian migrant worker called Ruyati binti
Satubi by the Saudi government served as unerringly as a prophetic jest.

This is hard to swallow for a government that aspires to be called
successful by carefully staging games of appearance. Even harder is the
way of ensuring how, when history repeats itself, it is not another
tragedy of this sort. No doubt the current talk of a moratorium on sending
migrant workers to Saudi Arabia is lofty on paper, but it is bound to be
overrun by another flurry of emergencies. The problem of migrant workers
in the Middle East is a complicated one, and the choice is not between
completely halting and business as usual. Rather, it is about the
cognizance that the labor market for migrant workers is the most
vulnerable market of any kind.

The term “labor market” is ludicrous even in an economic sense. Human
labor is the last bastion in the arsenal of humanity that has been
shattered by capitalism. The “smashing” took the form of turning human
toils into a commodity on the same level as other commodities. For those
who study economics only as the market system — and not as a science of
human livelihood, of which the market is only a tool — there is nothing
bizarre about this preposterous nature of labor markets. However, a
moment’s reflection is enough to realize that in all respects human labor
is not a commodity. It is made into a commodity only by academic

Alas, we can only start from what history has inscribed. Precisely because
human labor is a bogus commodity, a labor market is usually the most
regulated market, i.e., social regulations and protection are applied
heavily to minimize its dehumanizing effects. This is particularly true
with migrant workers whose plight is entangled with the legal systems of
the countries of destination.

If the countries of destination are ones with good social regulations in
their labor market, migrant workers will have the fortune of thriving
well. But in many cases the countries of destination are ruled by despotic
systems, in which a contract between an employer and an employee is but
another name for a master-slave relationship. A slave is one whose misery
of being exploited is considered more palatable compared to the misery of
not being exploited at all. Of course this is not a language of the

But why is being exploited more bearable than not being exploited? The
answer lies not in the country of destination but in that of origin. This
is a dilemma of a government caught in quandary. On the one hand, to not
allow migrant workers to seek livelihoods in despotic countries is to
invite hard-pressed demands for providing employment at home. On the
other, allowing them to work in despotic countries is like the government
is inflicting itself with political impotence. In short, government is
captive to the unscrupulous logic of both the labor markets and national
sovereignty in international relations.

This is what is now giving a headache to the ministries of Manpower and
Foreign Affairs. It is rather pointless to rehearse the solutions, for
these two ministries and the Law and Human Rights Ministry should know
what to do on the ground. The most that can be said is that the lower the
workers are situated on the employment ladder, the more urgently they need
affirmative action from the government.

This of course is stating a self-evident normative. The bad news is that
power has an inherent bias against those inhabiting the lower strata of a
political game. Thus we get this unpleasant truth beyond a shadow of
doubt: Those who most gravely need affirmative action from government are
precisely those most prone to being ignored.

Change in this unprincipled exercise of power is the last thing we can
expect. A solution in the form of high-level diplomacy can be expected
only if office holders of these ministries are not caught in a similar web
of useless public relations. The duty of a political authority is to know
that diplomatic trivia is no substitute for a real redress of the
physically brutal nature of a tragedy like that which befell Ruyati.

Indeed, the real power of a state office rests in the skill by which its
holder can use their authority to get the right things done. Otherwise,
political power simply means the pleasure an office holder may get from a
purely personal exercise of will, which basically is an act of being a
political parasite in the land of the crestfallen.

The writer is a lecturer in the postgraduate program at Driyarkara School
of Philosophy, Jakarta.