Long overdue rights for domestic workers

18 June 2014

Stories of domestic worker Erwiana Sulistyaningsih made headlines when she spoke out against her employer's abhorrent abuse while working in Hong Kong. Gruesome cuts and burns on her body were so bad that she was unable to walk when she returned to Jakarta.

Details of her case reveal more than the beating and physical abuse she suffered during the eight months she was in Hong Kong. She was not able to sleep or eat adequately, had to work as long as 20 hours a day and was not allowed a day off.

However, the Indonesian public, who were indignant at the sight of Erwiana, may be ignoring an even more marginalized group of domestic workers. Those within their own borders, who face the same level of contempt and abuse as experienced by their counterparts who go overseas, if not worse.

Just a month after Erwiana's return to Indonesia, Yuliana Leiwer fled the home of her abusive employer Mutiara Situmorang in Bogor, West Java. Not only was she the wife of a retired police general, the report attracted attention as there were 15 other domestic workers in the same household who reported physical abuse and forced servitude. Yuliana and the other domestic workers had not been paid in months. According to the Bogor Legal Aid Institute (LBH Bogor), seven of the 16 workers were 17.

Yuliana's story may be an extreme example, but domestic workers here often face abusive, degrading and disrespectful treatment from their employers. Part of the problem is the lack of legal mechanisms that regulate domestic work, which leaves domestic workers in legal limbo. The labor laws exclude domestic workers and politicians have been dragging their feet for years finalizing the draft of the domestic workers law. This means employers are free to set the rules.

According to the National Labor Force Survey, there were 2.6 million domestic workers in 2012, 75 percent of them were female. Together with 3 million women migrant workers abroad, by 2012 there were at least 5 million Indonesian women and girls working as domestic workers.

What links the stories of Erwiana and Yuliana and the millions of domestic workers here is the long-overdue recognition of domestic work as proper work and their rights as workers. Such recognition would be important because better labor protection for migrant domestic workers in destination countries translates into more remittances and better development prospects for countries of origin, as we argue in our report for UN Women. This is true for Indonesia where domestic workers comprise almost 50 percent of all migrant workers but are paid substantially less than their male counterparts.

Likewise, local domestic workers in Indonesia come primarily from poor families in rural areas and their income is usually vital for their families' survival. Better working conditions for them would, therefore, improve the lives of the poor.

June 16 was International Domestic Workers' Day, which marks the adoption of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This convention is a landmark treaty that set standards for the treatment of domestic workers, finally giving a largely invisible workforce the same level of protection formal workers have benefited from. The convention affirms that domestic workers are not "helping hands" but workers who should be able to work under conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.

At the time of its adoption, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono showed his support for protecting all domestic workers by stating at the ILO Congress in Geneva that in addition to migrant domestic workers, "those domestic workers who work within their own countries must also be given the same protection".

He stated that voting in favor of the adoption of this convention would help Indonesia "formulate effective national legislation and regulations". It has, however, been three years since his explicit support of the convention and four years since the deliberation of the draft domestic workers law began.

In the meantime, 14 countries have ratified convention No. 189. Indonesian domestic workers, by contrast, are still waiting for the long overdue respect of their rights and recognition of their contribution to society.

Sohoon Lee and Associate Professor Nicola Piper are from the University of Sydney and are members of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. They wroteContribution of Migrant Domestic Workers to Sustainable Development, published as a policy paper for the Global Forum on Migration and Development by UN Women.