Sunday, February 23, 2014

Indonesia's Domestic Slavery

Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyanningsih was beaten, starved and held in a state of imprisonment for seven months by her Hong Kong employer. 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.

But little attention has been paid to how little legal protection Indonesia provides for its own domestic workers. A bill to strengthen legal protection for domestic workers has been stuck in the Indonesian parliament since 2010. Syahri Sakidin, Director of Government Relations at the Indonesia Institute in Australia, told me there is not an urgency 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. Amnesty International recently accused Indonesia of "dragging its feet" over the issue. Meanwhile, these women linger in a state of what Amnesty calls a "legal limbo". 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.

 In Indonesia Siti Nur Amalah’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.

If Indonesian politicians do go ahead with stopping women from going abroad to work, as they've said they would by 2017 then an alternative source of income must be found for the  $7.8bn the International Organisation for Migration estimates migrant workers sent home.  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. 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.

As in the situation where nations try to curtail the mobility of labour by imposing immigration controls,  surely too,  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. Nor is bans always for the welfare of the migrant workers. 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 starts 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. 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.  320,000 mainly Indonesian and Filipina maids who live here form the backbone of family life. They care for children, cook  food and clean  toilets. Surely they should be protected as the invaluable asset they are, not as an expendable commodity.  Hong Kong is far from perfect - its exploitation of domestic workers is systematic according to Amnesty - but at least it is backed by real legislation.  Indonesia, too, must put its own house in order.

From here

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