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Standing up for domestic workers matters

In most countries 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. Indonesia’s Domestic Worker Protection Bill can change that even if the latest version of the bill does not acknowledge domestic workers’ unions, nor their freedom to participate in union activities. But the bill that was first proposed 20 years ago is delayed. Therefore women’s rights groups marched to the presidential palace in Central Jakarta on International Women’s Day 2024 to voice their pressing demands before the government. A hunger strike last autumn by domestic workers at the House of Representatives building ended in violence. Police confiscated their property and beat the protesters.

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. Indonesian domestic workers in their own home country are vulnerable to exploitation and slavery at worst.

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.

Improving legal protection for all

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.

Igniting a major cultural shift

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.

Indonesian activists in hunger strike. Copyright: IDWF

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