Indonesia’s surging debate over domestic worker exploitation

Jokowi’s appallingly inadequate response to the exploitation of overseas domestic workers adds to the mounting evidence about the Indonesian president’s reactionary politics.

In my last post, I wrote that there was ‘still some uncertainty about the direction that President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) will take Indonesia’. Since then, there have a few more clarifying moments about Jokowi’s capacity to reform politics. Many of these are spelled out in this biting interview with Australian National University academic, Greg Fealy, who observes that Jokowi is ‘out in the cold’ following a series of poor cabinet, ministerial and bureaucratic appointments.

‘Nearly all observers over-estimated Jokowi’s capacity to bring about change’, argues Fealy. These illusions have been shattered by the ‘extent of his compromises’ with the political establishment he promised to clean up. Despite his widely-praised stints at Governor in Solo and Jakarta, the ‘harsh reality may be that Jokowi is not equipped to be a good president’.

As per the remit of this blog, I want to go back to labour issues: in my last post, I suggested that there are three fault-lines of labour politics that highlight problems with the new presidency. First, there is the terrible conditions of mining workers, as highlighted by the unrest continuing at the massive Freeport gold and copper mine in West Papua, although a widespread problem across the country. Second, the demands of the main manufacturing union over wages and collective bargaining are a further source of tension. But it is the third point—the exploitation of many of Indonesia’s estimated 6.5 million overseas migrant workers (Tenaga Kerja Indonesia, or TKI) and, particularly, of female domestic workers—that I want to highlight here.

Before doing so, I should add that a fourth point of tension could well emerge in regional conflicts of land and labour rights in forest areas. This was highlighted by the death of sugarcane farmers union (STT) member, Indra Pelani, in Jambi province, Sumatra, after being beaten by security guards hired by a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). This follows other recent deaths of farmers over disputes with APP suppliers.

Domestic workers

The exploitation of domestic workers is already a widely-discussed issue in Indonesia. The TKI portion of domestic labour forms a particular subset of this workforce, part of the 53 million-strong global domestic workforce estimated by ILO. The ILO also argues that at least a quarter of these workers have no legal rights.

In the last month, the plight of these workers has received huge attention for a few different reasons. First, there is the well-publicised case of Erwiana, who was severely abused and beaten for 8 months by her Hong Kong employer, who was jailed for six years in late February.

Second, Jokowi responded to the problem of exploitation by proposing to ban all women from travelling for work overseas as domestic helpers. Female labour migration for domestic work has already been restricted to several Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, although not to some others like Bahrain.

Jokowi’s proposal to radically extend this policy has been roundly criticized as populist and unhelpful by migrant rights activists. One such organization, Migrant Care, said this was a setback for decent work advocacy by treating women as the problem rather than pledging to protect their rights. Migrant Care’s policy analyst also suggested that the institution supposed to regulate labour migration and protect workers (BNP2TKI) was undermined by corruption, a familiar problem in the country.

Jokowi’s proposal was also rejected by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). As one KP activist noted, the President was worried that the treatment of Indonesian women was ‘humiliating for the nation’ without recognizing that exploitation was often just as bad for the many more women working as domestic helpers within Indonesia. For example, the national parliament had not yet passed any protective legislation for domestic workers, although a bill had originally been presented 11 years ago. Other critical voices have included the National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy and the Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta (LBH).

These criticisms of Jokowi highlight the driving forces behind the exploitation of domestic workers. These include the lack of legal rights for women in overseas host countries across Asia, the Middle East and Western countries, the lack of regulation and control over intermediaries—labour ‘brokers’ and contractors—who link female workers with employers through domestic and international markets and, deeper still, the lack of decent employment opportunities across rural and regional Indonesia.

The problem of regulation and control is highlighted by the Indonesian government’s response to overseas migrant workers. While BNP2TKI has suspended several migrant placement agencies for violating the ban of female labour migration to Arab countries, there has been, as migrant advocacy groups suggest, no serious attempt to grapple with domestic workers’ exploitation at home. For example, there is very little to prevent labour brokers from misleading potential recruits about their pay and working conditions or about the alleged benefits of labour migration.

The deeper issue of employment opportunities was highlighted in two recent articles (here and here) on the regency of Indramayu, a West Javanese coastal province about 200 km east of Jakarta. Local employment in Indramayu is based on rice cultivation, producing about three per cent of all rice in Indonesia. Based on seasonal labour, rice farming cannot sustain the livelihoods and incomes needed to avoid poverty. Thus, household income in the region, like many others across Java, is bolstered by out-migration which especially involves women.

This can take the form of domestic labour in other parts of Java or overseas to the Middle East or Malaysia or, as outlined in the first article published in Australia by Fairfax, as sex work in the big cities. This takes the torrid form of young women and girls offered large loans of up to $3000 to work in the ‘dancing bars’ of the major cities, including wealthy areas of Jakarta like Kelapa Gading. These workers are effectively bonded—the large loans keep them, and their families, tied to labour brokers and traffickers.

Sex work is a rather different case to the bonded labour of many TKI domestic helpers. The second article focuses on these workers from the Indramayu region. It argues that, while there are numerous, well-publicised cases of abuse and mistreatment—in 2011-12, 7,000 complaints were filed with BNPP2TKI—the lure of TKI domestic work is underpinned by the promise of remittance-driven incomes. Workers send a huge proportion of their income home to benefit their families.

The article thus presents the results of labour migration as a matter of luck—despite the perils of being apart from families and loved ones for long periods, workers and their families might do okay if they find work with ‘good’ employers. Workers who suffer from exploitation are generally those unfortunate enough to be deceived by labour brokers or abused by unscrupulous employers.

The article focuses particularly on the 220,000 migrant domestic workers in Singapore, most of them Indonesian, and their exclusion for the local Employment Act which is meant to regulate working hours and days-off. Furthermore, it shows that domestic workers are legally required to live with their employer. This is important as domestic worker advocates have frequently argued that ‘live-in’ workers are more vulnerable and difficult to organize than ‘live-out’ workers.

Looking more closely at cases of abuse and exploitation of Indonesian domestic helpers in Singapore, Hong Kong or the Middle East highlights the appalling inadequacy of the Indonesian government’s response. Whether or not this failure can be another fault-line of opposition to Jokowi’s thus-far underwhelming presidency is a question of domestic Indonesian politics I am not qualified to answer. But the reality of this issue only adds to the mounting evidence about Jokowi’s reactionary politics and the mistaken belief that he could ever offer much of progressive substance to Indonesian workers and the poor.

Note: image from Wikimedia commons

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