Indonesia is increasingly more intolerant of domestic worker rights abuses as the lack of safeguards in the migrant maid industry perpetuates an underclass of vulnerable working women in servitude.
There are nearly 900 000 overseas domestic workers who inject billions of dollars a year into the Indonesian economy, yet nationalist politicians argue that Indonesia needs to provide jobs back home to prevent the ongoing exploitation of its overseas female workers.
Indonesia plans to stop all maids going abroad to work by 2017, but it is unlikely the industry will disappear altogether despite rising wages at home.
Australian observers suggest that the valuable service such domestic workers provide might be better supported and protected if maids were able to work in developed countries under appropriate temporary migration schemes.
Migrant worker rights will be an issue in upcoming nationalist electoral campaigns because public sentiment is being stoked by reactionary escalations in official policy as well as renewed politician interest in worker rights as a public appeal platform.
Syahri Sakidin, a former Indonesian diplomat, said at the moment, “both issues of spying and sending workers abroad are a good-blend topic of discussion to show off one's patriotic and heroic sentiment In Indonesia, especially among politicians”.
Indonesia warned hiring countries that it would ban Indonesian migrant workers, known as Tenaga Kerja Wanita (TKW), if those countries were found to violate rights standards, and it came good on its word, temporarily banning domestic workers from five countries earlier in the year.
Rights violators Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, and Jordan were banned for not adequately protecting workers’ rights, though Indonesia often appears less concerned with establishing protections for human rights than defending its sovereignty and dignity in line with its growing status.
Indonesia does not want to be seen as a servant population available for export, and while it brokered a deal that got Malaysia off the naughty list, it reiterated its promise to end the maid trade in four years’ time as the Philippines has also pledged.
Back in June Moh Jumhur Hidayat, the Chairman of the Migrant Worker Placement and Protection Agency inferred that it was preferable Indonesians were free under poorer conditions than better off in servitude, deeming rights abuses a slight on the nation.
“The government’s political policy is very clear surrounding Indonesian migrant workers. The TKW program will not operate in countries that do not protect the workers. The dignity, sovereignty of the country is above everything,” he said in a Jakarta Globe report.
Indonesia’s dignity has taken several beatings this year as Hong Kong jailed a couple in September for torturing an Indonesian maid. Radio Australia reported on the ‘slave like’ conditions faced by maids working in Hong Kong.
Then in November Saudi Arabia’s amnesty deadline for illegal migrants concluded and the Kingdom started rounding up tens of thousands of foreign workers and putting them in detention, testimony to the enormous people trafficking trade that operates in accord with migrant labour.
Meanwhile Malaysia put an Indonesian maid on death row for murder and presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto jumped at the chance to unify public support behind migrant worker rights, becoming involved in the maid’s appeal to the approval of an indignant Indonesian public.
Domestic labour is sometimes referred to as a legalised slave trade, or modern day slavery, owing to vast records of trafficking, physical and sexual abuse, unpaid work, and restrictions on freedom that occur in receiving countries with poor human rights records.
Indonesia’s victims number in their thousands, maids who return from abroad without pay or bearing physical and emotional scars of abuse.
Developed countries have predominantly avoided visa schemes for low skilled domestic workers due to the potential for trafficking and exploitation as well as increased illegal migration.
However they too are not immune to trafficking, and where visas allow for low skilled workers, such as Australia’s 457 visa, rights abuses and exploitation follow. The difference is that in Australia labour violations are comparatively limited in number and legally addressed within spheres of human rights and criminality.
Despite the risks and injury facing migrant domestic workers, the industry is a significant part of many South East Asian economies and will continue to thrive while other economic opportunities develop.
Female domestic workers provide valuable services to families, services that are lacking in developed countries like Australia for instance, where the gender equality gap has never been fully closed due to the high costs of childcare.
Ross Taylor, President of the Perth based Indonesia Institute, advocates for a visa scheme that would facilitate domestic employment in Australia, although he admits there are significant obstacles to policy change as such a program would be a major paradigm shift in the social and political landscape.
Australia risks creating its own underclass of migrant women doing a job too poorly paid and appreciated for them to undertake themselves. Such a scheme would need to demonstrate substantial benefits for both employees and employers, starting with fundamental rights protections; fixed hours, a fixed minimum wage, living options, and holiday leave.
That achieved, Graham Hornel, an Australian migration agent, also believes if carefully hashed out, opening Australia’s its temporary migration doors to qualified Indonesian workers in selected appropriate occupations, may be a way to repair recent damage to the relationship.
He said instead of worker’s options being limited to countries where there has been a consistent pattern of abuse, visa schemes in countries with adequate rights recognition and appropriate legislation could enhance regional partnerships, if such projects could get off the ground.
“Virtually every program, including the East Java-Western Australia sister state relationship has just not moved forward: the Working Holiday Visa, the 'Colombo Plan 2' initiatives etc. A combination of apathy, clear lack of genuine commitment and an underlying mutual distrust, is killing the best of ideas and opportunities,” Hornel said.
Banning certain countries from employing maids signifies an extreme reaction to a serious and unacceptable situation involving thousands of legal and illegal workers whose economic precariousness drives a poorly regulated industry consisting of women taking risky employment options.
Providing adequate jobs for low skilled Indonesian women is a fair suggestion, but in reality expanding the geography for a valuable and in demand trade might yield more measureable social and economic benefits. Such proposals would need to get Indonesia onside for a re-evaluation and appraisal of how the industry is viewed and its workers treated.
Lauren is a freelance writer and human rights student.