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Why Standing Up For Domestic Workers Matters

In most countries around the world, domestic workers are excluded from general labour laws. Indonesia’s Domestic Worker Protection Bill can change that.

The Civil Society's Coalition for Law on Protection of Domestic Workers marched on the national parliament in Jakarta on International Women's Day 2023. (Courtesy of Perempuan Mahardhika)

By Sabina Puspita and Gabriela Fernando, Monash University Indonesia

JAKARTA, March 7 – How can a domestic “helper” run for legislative office? Does she know her job as a Member of Parliament is different from cleaning a parliamentary office?

These were some of the questions people posted in the comments section of a social media post about Yuni Sri Rahayu, a domestic worker who ran for a seat in the Jakarta City Government’s subnational Parliament at the Indonesian election on February 14, 2024.

Counting is ongoing, but Yuni currently holds more votes than the wealthier and dynastic candidates of her electoral district such as Astrid Kuya and Fauzan Fadel Muhammad.

There are more than 4.5 million domestic workers in Indonesia. At least 90 percent of them are women, and thousands underage. Some migrate from local villages to major cities across Indonesia, while others go abroad.

A striking difference of social status and protection exists between Indonesia’s migrant domestic workers and domestic workers at their own home country.

The government and public view migrant domestic workers as foreign exchange heroes for their remittances, while Indonesian domestic workers in their own home country are vulnerable to exploitation and slavery at worst.

In most countries around the world, domestic workers are totally or partially excluded from general labour laws, including those concerning working conditions, minimum wage, legal rights, or regarding their health and safety.

Dozens of women’s rights groups have organised a march to the presidential palace in Central Jakarta on International Women’s Day 2024 on March 8 to voice their pressing demands before the government.

These include calls for the government to better implement the 2022 Law on Sexual Violence Crimes, revoke the controversial 2023 Government Regulation in lieu of Law on Job Creation, and ratify the 20-year-old Bill on the Protection of Domestic Workers.

The bill is urgently needed and this year’s International Women’s Day provides a good opportunity for women’s rights activists and their allies to attract broader public attention to its contents and overarching goals.

The delayed Bill on the Protection of Domestic Workers regulates the minimal terms and conditions for employers and placement agencies to hire a domestic worker and for domestic workers to be lawfully employed.

Ultimately, the bill requires employers to ensure their domestic worker’s regular remuneration, clear job description, and occupational health and safety through a written agreement between the domestic worker and employer.

If an employer uses a placement agency, the bill requires the placement agent to also be a signatory of the agreement.

Establishment of the bill means not only recognising domestic workers as a legitimate workforce but also redistributing state resources to this historically marginalised group of workers.

It lays down the provision of domestic workers’ access to national insurance, social safety net, humane working hours and free training from placement agencies or the government. These components are critical to domestic workers’ overall and long-term wellbeing.

Research has shown the mental and physical health risks they have had to endure in the absence of affordable access to healthcare, especially during times of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bill also regulates the procedures for mediating domestic worker-employer disputes and the terms for ending employment lawfully.

However, the latest version of the bill does not acknowledge domestic workers’ unions, nor their freedom to participate in union activities.

Hence, domestic workers are legally bound to accept only neighbourhood leaders and the respective regional government’s agency as mediators when a dispute arises.

With such an arrangement that maintains the unequal power relations between domestic workers and authorities, domestic workers would still be highly prone to intimidation or victimisation.

Many female domestic workers leave their children home with grandparents and migrate in hope of better income. Both migrant domestic workers and their children left behind in a poverty-ridden area are vulnerable to human-trafficking.

JALA PRT, a Jakarta-based civil society organisation that advocates for domestic workers, has received 2,641 reports of violence toward domestic workers from 2018 to 2023.

Cases generally involve a range of abuses from verbal to psychological, physical, financial, and sexual abuses such as being yelled at, locked inside the house, starved, molested, and unpaid for months.

According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women, among the severe cases that escalated to the police and courts, only 15 per cent of perpetrators were subjected to Indonesia’s 2004 Law on the Elimination of Domestic Violence. Most perpetrators received either light sanctions or acquittal.

Hence, the bill also regulates the procedures for reporting to neighbourhood leaders the domestic worker’s employment status as well as monitoring by central and local governments to detect any indication of abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

It further specifies the fines and jail time for placement agents and employers who intimidate, harass, or discriminate against domestic workers.

Parliament members’ inaction is largely due to two things.

First, pressures from their political donors or business elite constituents who either supply or employ domestic workers.

Existing studies have demonstrated how lucrative the business of labour agencies in supplying domestic workers to other cities or countries can be for local governments.

The bill potentially prevents further client-patron relationships which give incentives to politicians to ensure such businesses in their districts experience minimal disruption at the expense of domestic workers’ wellbeing.

Second, conflict of interests stemming from their personal interests in employing several domestic workers for their own households.

Several parliament members have raised objections to the bill’s clause on minimum wage and potential to disrupt local kinship systems — domestic workers tend to accept low wages in exchange for receiving food and shelter from the households they work for.

The bill will put a stop to exploitative sociocultural norms.

Historically, domestic workers together with activists and researchers have been quite successful in advocating for the usage of ‘maid’ or ‘servant’ on paper and in public or private discourses as socially unacceptable.

International Women’s Day — that started off from female factory workers’ strikes and struggles for better working conditions and pay in another context — is a critical moment to garner public awareness and support for advocating the rights and better protection of domestic workers and future generations’ wellbeing in Indonesia and similar contexts.

Better participation and leadership can also challenge existing sociocultural norms that perpetuate job hierarchy and gender inequalities, undermining the essential role of domestic workers.

While advancing policy and law reforms, researchers, journalists, and activists can help influence the conditions that would enable more domestic workers like Yuni to run for Parliamentary seats and shape better policies for domestic workers and other minorities.

Sabina Puspita is assistant professor in public policy and management at Monash University Indonesia. Gabriela Fernando is an assistant professor of public health at Monash University Indonesia.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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