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Indonesia's domestic workers in legal limbo

Why it's high time Indonesia focuses on protecting the vulnerable.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2014 07:51
Zarina Banu

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.
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Indonesia provides little legal protection for its own domestic workers, writes Banu [AFP]

A soul-searching is underway in Hong Kong over its treatment of domestic workers, after the ordeal of Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyanningsih came to light. Erwiana was allegedly beaten, starved and held in a state of imprisonment for seven months by her Hong Kong employer. How the territory legally protected its maids, monitored recruitment agencies and police attitudes towards abuse suspects were all put under an intense microscope.

Indonesia lost no time in re-claiming the moral high ground over the case. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised the 23-year old that justice would be done. Indonesian politicians called the scandal a wake-up call for the government to seriously improve the protection of its workers abroad. Foreign ministry officials demanded Hong Kong tighten its regulation of domestic worker agencies to reduce the potential for abuse.

These are valiant and justifiable arguments, which would broker no dissent from anyone with a sliver of moral fibre. But little attention has been paid to how Indonesia treats its own domestic workers. Indonesia has no right to berate other countries over how they treat domestic workers until it puts its own house in order.

End the legal limbo

Indonesia provides little legal protection for its own domestic workers. This allows for a system in which extreme cases of abuse are not brought to trial and fosters the widespread exploitation of a largely female workforce.

A bill to strengthen legal protection for domestic workers has been stuck in the Indonesian parliament since 2010. Amnesty International recently accused Indonesia of "dragging its feet" over the issue. Millions of workers in Indonesia are currently not afforded the same rights as other workers - rights, which cover a limitation on working hours, guarantees of adequate pay and living conditions.

Indonesia must deal with the treatment of its domestic workers as a priority. The recent case of Siti Nur Amalah showed why. Siti's Jakarta employer allegedly beat and sexually abused her over a period of four months. The attacks left her blind and traumatised. Siti said her employer then returned her to the employment agency and told her not to report the assault. If the domestic workers legislation is not enacted then authorities won't be able to prosecute abusive employers. If abusive employers aren't prosecuted then the cycle of mistreatment will continue.

Indonesian society has shown a deep reluctance to engage with the problem where it counts. In a phone interview, Syahri Sakidin, Director of Government Relations at the Indonesia Institute in Australia, told me there is slim appetite among the richer classes to enact the law, because they are the main employers of domestic workers and so have little vested interest in challenging the status quo.

[T]here is slim appetite among the richer classes to enact the law, because they are the main employers of domestic workers and so have little vested interest in challenging the status quo.

Meanwhile, these women linger in a state of what Amnesty calls a "legal limbo".

Poverty and nationalism

If Indonesian politicians do go ahead with stopping women from going abroad to work, as they've said they would by 2017, then they need to put this plan into concrete action. Indonesia's Consul General in Hong Kong Chalief Akbar told me Jakarta is looking at alternative programmes to develop skills in caregiving, hospitality and manufacturing. The International Organisation for Migration estimates migrant workers sent home $7.8bn in 2013. This is a sizable chunk of GDP and the major job generation drive, needed to replace these inflows, seems at best ad hoc.

Moreover, the country can't adequately feed, clothe and house its poor. Around 45 million Indonesians, out of 245 million, live on a pitiful less than $1.25 a day, according to the Asian Development Bank. Despite the impressive growth rate of around 5-6 percent of recent years, the wealth gap is widening. The boom times have benefitted the rich, not the poor.

At the level of individual rights, surely people should be allowed to make their own decision about where they want to work? It is not for government to dictate where, or how, people seek employment. It is the responsibility of decision-makers to broaden access to opportunity, not to shrink it. It's politics from the top-down and it's not the type of governance these women need.

There is also an element of nationalism to contend with. The president's routine imposition of moratoriums, on countries - Saudi Arabia and Malaysia to name two - seen to be violating the rights of Indonesian domestic workers, are mere grandstanding in defence of Indonesia's dignity abroad. Nationalist politicians argue the mistreatment of female domestic workers damages Indonesia's international reputation.

They want Indonesia to make more noise on the world stage, in fitting with its status as an emerging power. With legislative and presidential elections coming up in April and employment a hot campaign issue this time round, the grandstanding about domestic workers also serves as a convenient campaign platform for nationalists.

For most women, life as a domestic worker begins with a tough journey into unknown territory. It kicks off with the recruitment and immigration agencies in Indonesia that compel women to live for weeks on end in crowded dormitories while they wait for officials at both ends of the supply chain to process their papers.

Agency representatives collect the new arrivals at the other end and continue this degrading experience by often "advising" employers to confiscate the women's passports and limit their freedoms in other ways. The agencies operate in the full knowledge that the efficiency of the maid trade relies on these women's cheapness and convenience. It's state-sponsored commoditisation and dehumanisation of women on a mass scale.

It's an open secret in Hong Kong that many employers and agencies prefer Indonesians because they are less demanding of their rights.

It's an open secret in Hong Kong that many employers and agencies prefer Indonesians because they are less demanding of their rights.

In Hong Kong at least there's a legal obligation to pay a minimum wage and give women one day off a week. This perceived subservience means recruiters and employers sometimes favour Indonesians over the more unionised and rights-aware Filipinas. For every Erwiana, there are thousands of other Indonesians in Hong Kong living in "slavery-like conditions", according to Amnesty International.

Yet the lure of a relatively decent and regular wage remains overpowering. In Hong Kong, domestic workers earn around $515 a month - a far greater salary than someone of their skill level could earn in Indonesia. But the 320,000 mainly Indonesian and Filipina maids who live here form the backbone of family life. They care for our children, cook our food and clean our toilets. Surely they should be protected as the invaluable asset they are, not as an expendable commodity.

Still, the soul-searching in Hong Kong is a reasonable gauge of how seriously a society takes human rights and holds individuals to account. Erwiana's employer is due in court on March 25 to face seven counts of abuse. Hong Kong is far from perfect - its exploitation of domestic workers is systematic according to Amnesty - but at least the debate about Erwiana's treatment is backed by real legislation. You have to start somewhere. Indonesia could do well to open up a balanced discussion about domestic workers and put its own house in order first.

What's more, an emerging economy must behave like an emerging power. This means taking on the weight of moral responsibility and seeing it through. Rising GDP and middle-class consumption are easy reflectors of a thriving economy. A barometer of a nation's health is much more than how many people buy designer handbags, smartphones or foreign flights. The real gauge is not how a society rewards its rich, but how it protects the vulnerable.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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