Justice for domestic workers

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There used to be a maid working in the kos (house with rented rooms) that I live in West Jakarta. Her name is Unyil, like the 1980s children’s television series puppet character.

She would clean the floors and wash the dishes and do the laundry. My kos landlord, who lives in the outskirts of Jakarta pays for her salary, which out of ignorance us 8 girls in the kos never really knew how much she earned from that. Each of us that needed help with the laundry only paid her Rp 50,000 to do a month’s laundry.

The eighteen year-old Unyil stayed with us in a room in the kos. While we go out and about with our work, she entertained her self by listening to the radio and texting on her cell phone. She was nice and friendly and likes to laugh and joke a lot.

A year ago, suddenly she left the kos, leaving only a note in her room. In her note she said that she was going to be a migrant worker.

The news was surprising for us, but not only that, we felt guilty for her leave. If only we (kos renters and our landlord) had paid more attention to her, pay her more for her services, she wouldn’t be lured to work overseas.

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We felt guilty because our ignorance in her salary and working condition has made her gamble her life to increase her financial situation.

It is well known that protection for unskilled migrant workers from Indonesia is still very low. Harrowing stories of death, torture, abuse, rape, fraud experienced by migrant workers has been frequent in the news. Stories of migrant workers on death row in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia for killing their employers have also been told to Indonesian public.

Unyil came back to my mind when I read the news yesterday. There was a news story about an Indonesian maid Suwin Satimah binti Takhiyat who fell of her employer’s apartment building in Cairo. She was reportedly trying to escape the building using makeshift ropes. She had only been in Cairo for 5 months!

Reading her story, I think she was inspired by what another migrant worker in Malaysia did. In 2006, Ceriyati climbed out the apartment building to escape from her employer by tying sheets and clothes as a rope. While Ceriyati managed to survive, Suwin did not.

There have been too many stories about abuse of migrant workers. To earn money and escape from poverty, Indonesian migrant workers risk falling into modern day slavery.

With so many Indonesian working as migrant workers –- some 4.5 million Indonesians are working overseas, 70 percent of them are women working as domestic workers, and the country is still sending 70,000 migrant workers per month! –- it is a huge question mark on why the Indonesian government has yet to ratify the 1990 UN Convention on the protection of the rights migrant workers and their families. In December 2007, ILO said the problem of Indonesian migrant workers was caused by Indonesia not ratifying the convention.

While Indonesia condemns other countries for the mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers abroad, the country needs to look within first. The government’s reluctance in ratifying the UN convention shows its lack political will to protect migrant workers. Meanwhile, the way local employers treat their maids also tells how we view the profession.

In Indonesia, maids work in households of lower to upper middle class families. Some maids who live with the families are given a small cabinet-size room, they earn as small as Rp 200,000 per month, with no days off except for Idul Fitri leave. The very rare lucky ones with fair employers would earn as much as the minimum local wage (around Rp 970,000 in Jakarta). Abuse towards domestic workers in Indonesia also occurs.

Groups such as Jala PRT have been demanding for protection for the profession of domestic workers as they are not regulated in the Labour Law. The groups are demanding a law on domestic workers protection. Which they believe would help protect the rights of domestic helpers. Culturally, maids are not seen as a profession but as part of the household. The practice roots from olden days when families would take relatives to live with them and help out in the house.

It’s so common that employers only appreciate their maids when they are not around, when the maids go home to their villages on holiday season or when they leave with only a note saying that they’re going to be a migrant worker.

Most of the time employers are ignorant about the rights of their domestic helpers. Employers pay small salaries and give no days off, because it has been the norm for so long and they can get away with it. That’s why we should push for a legislation to protect maids.

The harrowing stories of the plight of domestic workers come not only from overseas, but also from Indonesia. Let’s stop that and see if Indonesia can improve the working condition of the domestic workers here.

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