Indonesia’s Domestic Workers: Economic Heroes, Victims of Foreign Policy Failure

June 16, 2011—the International Labour Conference signs ILO Convention No. 189 on decent work for domestic workers.[1] In a speech to the ILO, President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono calls Indonesia’s migrant workers the country’s “economic heroes” and labor experts call it a surprising breakthrough for millions of exploited women. [2] Two days later Saudi Arabia beheads an Indonesian maid named Ruyati binti Sapubi.[3] The condemned woman, who killed her employer, said she had been abused.

The turn of events highlight the need for protections and the challenges of putting them in place.

Stories like Ruyati’s regularly make the front pages of Indonesian papers. Sumiati binti Salan Mustapa, another maid who worked in Saudi Arabia, was hospitalized in Medina last year with broken bones and a mutilated face. The conviction of her employer was overturned. Keni binti Carda, an Indonesian maid, went home in 2008 with scars spread across her back and face. She said her employer burned her with an iron and forced her to eat excrement. Similar stories will continue to emerge if not enough is done.

ILO estimates there are up to 100 million domestic workers employed around the world.[4] Fearing deportation, domestic workers often become bonded labor to pay off those who smuggled them to the new country. To keep workers in bondage, passports are confiscated from them. It would seem that slavery does not only come in the obvious form in which one person owns another person.[5]

Part of the blame lies on sending countries’ governments. For example, Human Rights Watch has found that Indonesian migrant domestic workers continue to confront a range of abuses both during the recruitment process and while employed abroad:

“The government has failed to stop local recruiters from charging prospective migrants exorbitant fees that leave them highly indebted, which contributes to situations of forced labor abroad. Citing concerns about abuse, the government has maintained bans of new migration to Malaysia and Kuwait, and in 2010 imposed and lifted a ban on migration to Jordan. Negotiations to revise a 2006 memorandum of understanding with Malaysia on domestic workers, initially expected to be concluded in 2009, have repeatedly stalled on establishing a minimum wage and a recruitment fee structure.”[6]

The other end of the problem is the unhealthy competition from countries that demand less protection. In countries where domestic workers make up most of their overseas workers, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, domestic worker protection has become a foreign policy issue, which they often find themselves on the losing end of. [7] Instead of responding to the negative publicity and calls for accountability after Ruyati’s execution, Saudi Arabia announced it would no longer allow new hires of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers. Saudi recruiters then described plans to hire thousands of Bangladeshis at wages of $170 a month, less than half what the Philippine government demanded.[8]

After a string of abuse cases in Malaysia, Indonesia announced a freeze on migration in 2009 but lifted its ban two years later, after Malaysia started recruiting women from Cambodia and negotiations went practically nowhere. Indonesia won a few concessions and no guarantee of a minimum wage. [9]

History shows that freezes on migration and bilateral negotiations do not result in effectively securing better employment conditions for the long-term. More often they just shift migration patterns — with increased migration from countries that seek fewer protections for domestic workers.

What should be done? More must be done to implement the good intentions of the newly signed Convention on both ends of the problem, and from the world’s most influential players. Sending countries’ governments, in addition to signing the Convention and continuing to make demands of receiving governments, should also prohibit the practice of charging migrant workers recruitment fees and insist the cost be borne by employers, educate workers about their rights before departure. These governments should also make agencies responsible for ensuring passports stay with the workers and take reasonable measures to screen the employers they contract with.

More international pressure needs to be placed on receiving countries to implement the principles of the Convention. Seeing that negative publicity and calls for accountability have resulted in few changes, international pressure should take on more serious forms. For example, the world’s most influential trade partner, the United States, could impose incentives and punishments around the issue in bilateral negotiations on receiving countries and sending countries that continue to ignore protections that are set out in the Convention. Domestic worker protection, after all, is important because it is a question about the morality of slavery.

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