Don't ignore plight of maids working inside Indonesia

When an Indonesian maid returned home in January, allegedly maimed by her employer in Hong Kong, there was outrage throughout Indonesia. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other politicians took the moral high ground. They denounced the abuse and demanded justice for the domestic worker.

In doing so, they displayed the standard reaction typically expressed whenever abused Indonesian workers return from abroad. Jakarta demands that foreign governments provide legal protection for Indonesian workers in their countries.

But when 16 domestic workers were rescued from the house of a retired police general in Bogor following reports of alleged abuse and illegal confinement last month, the response was muted. There were no valiant voices in support of the abused maids. Neither were there demands for justice. And the suspect in this case was not even detained by the police.

Last June, an 18 year-old girl working as a maid in Jakarta was allegedly blinded by her employer after months of torture before she was returned to the agency that recruited her. No action has been taken, apart from police declaring her employer a suspect.

These episodes show Jakarta's apparent indifference towards domestic workers in the country.

Maids working abroad are given more attention because the migrants remit billion-dollar foreign exchange earnings into Indonesia. Hence they are called "pahlawan devisa" or foreign exchange warrior. While the remittances of the migrants constitute a sizeable chunk of the GDP, the contribution of domestic maids working in the country is not accounted for.

It smacks of grandstanding by politicians in an election year to boost their nationalist credentials when they speak up for the domestic workers ill-treated abroad.

While Jakarta continues to accuse foreign governments of not providing enough protection for the 6.2 million Indonesians working in their countries, no concerted efforts are made to protect the 10.7 million domestic workers in the country.

The vast majority of the victims in Indonesia are women and girls, many under the age of 18 years. But there is still no means of holding employers accountable when they abuse their workers.

This situation persists despite local and international advocacy groups pointing out hundreds of cases of ill treatment of domestic workers who suffer from poor working conditions and other abuses in the country annually.

The issue here does not just concern the rights of workers. It also touches on gender equality. Many women and girls are victims of gender-based violence like rape or sexual harassment, much of which goes unreported. The victims are either unaware of their right to report the crime or are afraid to do so.

Some commentators have dubbed them as people living "in legal limbo" with their rights and interests as workers not recognised by the state. One newspaper editorial even described their plight as "modern day slavery".

Two areas in particular require attention.

First, Indonesia's labour law does not cover women and girls working in households because they are considered as being in the informal sector.

Hence many endure poor working conditions and are at the mercy of their employers, with no recognition of their rights.

Instead of amending the labour law to include domestic maids, the government drafted and later presented a Bill on domestic workers for Parliament to debate in 2010.

The Bill includes provisions that touch on issues such as hours of work, wages, and dispute resolution mechanisms. It also contains specific provisions regarding the needs of women, including their sexual and reproductive rights and pregnancy.

But the proposed legislation has remained stuck in Parliament, with legislators failing to arrive at a consensus. After more than three years in the House, the Bill is not likely to be passed before Parliament goes into recess this month.

The second area of concern is the fact that Indonesia is yet to be a signatory to the Convention on Domestic Workers, formulated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), that came into force last year. This convention serves as an international standard to promote decent working conditions for domestic helpers.

The convention entitles domestic workers to the same basic rights as other workers. These include a minimum wage, social security, weekly days off and clear information on the terms and conditions of their employment.

Governments of countries that are party to the convention are obligated to protect domestic workers from violence, regulate private employment agencies that recruit domestic helpers, and prevent children from labouring in domestic work.

President Yudhoyono expressed his unequivocal support for the domestic workers convention when it was adopted at an ILO conference in Geneva in July 2011. Last month, Minister for Manpower Muhaimin Iskandar gave the clearest indication yet that Indonesia would ratify the convention. But there has been no word about when this would take place.

The government should follow up on its efforts to protect maids in the country. And it should ratify the convention if it genuinely wants to improve the living conditions of 10.7 million domestic helpers working in Indonesia.

If no action is taken, all the rhetoric will look like lip service. It will also undermine efforts to protect the millions who are employed abroad.

Foreign governments will take their cue from Indonesia. If Jakarta appears serious in protecting its own domestic workers in the country, it will add weight to its calls on foreign governments to extend protection to Indonesian migrant workers.

Otherwise this grandstanding whenever an ill-treated Indonesian maid returns from abroad will only betray the hypocrisy of the nation's leaders.

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