Government urged to protect child domestic workers

No child worker: An employee takes down notes at a domestic worker agency in Jakarta. Activists have been urging the government to address the issue of child domestic workers.  JP/Nurhayati

The worst beating Kaminah ever received was from her employer, using a kitchen knife. The lady of the house had many knives; this one was one of the bigger ones. The blade was at least 30-centimeters long and serrated.

After her employer left the room, the 15-year-old used her own clothes to mop up the pool of blood that had collected on the tiles. She then put the clothes back in her bag, which also served as her pillow.

Kaminah worked for more than 18 hours that day, just as she did every day. Over the next week, the open wounds, which her employer forbade her to clean or treat, would fill with white pus and become infected.

“[Whenever I got a beating] I would always think of my family and wonder what they were doing,” Kaminah says. “Late at night, before going to sleep, I would think about my father and mother and feel very sad. I missed my parents a lot.”

Hours after the family had gone to bed, Kaminah lay her thin, battered body on the floor outside the bathroom. This is where she slept, without a blanket, pillow or even a mat to lie on.

“It was very cold. My head hurt and my whole body ached, especially because the floor was very hard and I had so many cuts and bruises,” Kaminah says.

That night, curled up on the ceramic tiles with her clothes bag under her head, Kaminah fell asleep with the stench of stale blood in her nostrils.

Indonesia’s child domestic workers – who some believe may number up to 1.2 million — are among the nation’s most exploited workers. The National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy (Jala PRT) estimates that there are 4 million domestic workers in Indonesia, around 30 percent of whom are children. Data collected by NGO Human Rights Watch indicates they typically work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or days off.

While salaries vary considerably, a 2009 survey conducted by CARE International Indonesia found that the average monthly income of child domestic workers in Tangerang was just over Rp 360,000 (US$36). Working 15 hours a day over 30 days, this translates to a wage of Rp 800 (8 US cents) per hour.

Although accurate data is extremely difficult to collect, existing research suggests alarmingly high rates of violence against domestic workers. One ILO survey of domestic workers in Jakarta and its outskirts found that 161 out of 173 respondents (93 percent) had experienced some form of physical abuse; 118 (68 percent) had experienced mental abuse and 73 (42 percent) indicated they suffered some form of sexual harassment or abuse.

Part of the problem, say activist groups and labor organizations, is the persistence of views that discriminate against women, children and the poor by undervaluing their labor, especially when it occurs in the home.

More than 90 percent of Indonesia’s domestic workers are female (this figure is even higher among child domestic workers), reflecting a prevailing attitude that sees education as less important for girls than boys.

“I really wanted to finish school but we didn’t have enough money to pay for the tuition so I decided to work as a domestic worker and help my family,” says Kiya, a child domestic worker who has been working since age 12.

“But I would love to go to school if I could,” she admits.
Human relations: A domestic worker shakes hand with her employer as she leaves to spend her holidays back at home. JP/J. Adiguna

One of the misconceptions at the heart of the problem is the employers’ belief their domestic workers are not actually workers, but an extension of the family. Employers see themselves as performing a paternalistic role, providing food, accommodation and a small amount of pocket money in return for the domestic worker’s labor. The relationship, they argue, is “private” rather than commercial, and the state has no business interfering.

“Just because someone lives at your house and you’re giving them a place to live or food to eat everyday, doesn’t mean that you can exploit them. It doesn’t mean that you own them,” says Wiwik Widyastuti, communications specialist at CARE Indonesia.

Yet the problem is not merely one of attitude. These attitudes are sanctioned by law. Under the government’s current interpretation of the national labor law, domestic workers are excluded from protection under the Manpower Act of 2003, which guarantees the basic labor rights of all formal workers.

In 2005, in response to damning reports of widespread abuse of child domestic workers, the ministry of manpower and transmigration announced its intention to submit a domestic worker protection bill for parliamentary approval. Almost five years later, the document remains unfinished.

Aside from the question of legal reform, however, international and local NGOs have been scathing of what they see as the failure of the government and police to take even basic steps toward regulating labor conditions within private homes.

They have also criticized the government’s apparent unwillingness to enforce existing laws — including the Criminal Code, the Anti-Domestic Violence Act, the Child Protection Act, the National Education Act and the Anti-Trafficking Act — that offer some protection to child domestic workers.

“The Indonesian government has shown no sign of investigating or piloting possible solutions to this problem, despite various solutions proposed by both domestic and international organizations… It is not that inspections and monitoring are impossible to do, it is that the government is simply choosing not to prioritize the protection of these young workers,” wrote Human Rights Watch in its 2009 report.

At least one organization has suggested that government inaction can be explained quite simply.
“There is a conflict of interest for the decision makers in government and parliament because…they also hire domestic workers,” Lita Anggraini, coordinator of the National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy (Jala PRT) says.
Learning by doing: Domestic workers study computers in a school for domestic workers in Yogyakarta.  JP/Sri Wahyuni

Yet with so many Indonesian families — not only the middle and upper classes — hiring domestic workers, it is undeniable that meaningful change in this area has the potential to impact a huge number of families.

Indeed, one of the government’s chief arguments against the introduction of minimum wage and the regulation of the industry is that lower income families will no longer have the means to access the domestic help they need. As a result, many domestic workers will find themselves out of a job.

Labor and human rights organizations offer two counter-arguments.

“The government has a responsibility to protect the rights of all people, not allow abuse and violence to happen,” says Lita.

Moreover, the heavy burden on Indonesian families is a direct consequence of government policies and is not beyond government’s capacity to reform.

According to Human Rights Watch: “To the extent that policymakers believe that more families should be able to access assistance with domestic work or child care, then the government should instead consider pursuing alternative policies — such as affordable community child care, making workplaces more flexible for working parents, or more generous maternity and paternity leave — that do not depend on the exploitation and under payment of child workers.”

It is unlikely, of course, that such far-reaching reform will happen any time soon. Nevertheless, say local activists, domestic workers will not lose out if the industry is properly regulated, even without social welfare reform.

“If we cannot pay the domestic worker the minimum salary, then we must fit the burden and type
of job on how much we can pay,” Lita says.

“If you can only pay Rp 300,000 [per month]…then just give the worker one kind of task, like laundry — don’t also give them cooking or cleaning or the children [to look after].”

Given the current shortage of domestic workers, such provisions will make it possible for a worker to earn income from multiple employers, says Lita.

The focus in recent years on protecting the rights of Indonesian domestic workers overseas has given strength to the movement to protect domestic workers within Indonesia.

During its widely publicized negotiations with the Indonesian government, the Malaysian government was quick to point out the hypocrisy of the government for demanding Malaysia protect Indonesian migrant workers, while it continues to neglect the rights of these same workers within its own borders.

Perhaps as a sign of changes to come, the issue appears to be gaining traction among parliamentary decision makers. Okky Asokawati, a member of Commission IX on Demography, health, manpower and transmigration affairs of the Indonesian Parliament, has confirmed that the domestic worker protection Bill drafted and submitted by Jala PRT five years ago is a top priority for 2010. The bill will be discussed in the first session of Parliament this year, says Okky.

As all eyes focus on the Indonesian Parliament, it will be up to domestic workers and their growing number of supporters to keep up the pressure for change.