Jakarta Globe | Insight

Lack of Legal Protection Makes Life Hell for Indonesia’s Domestic Workers

Jakarta. Ludiah was only 14 years old when she started her first job as a domestic worker in 1993 to earn an income for her family in East Java.

It was definitely not a fun job, because she was on call 24 hours per day to perform all the household tasks, while also enduring her employer’s often violent outbursts. She only earned Rp 55,000 ($4) for the six months of work – not even enough to survive on for a month.

She changed employers a few times after that before meeting a Columbian woman in 2014, who brought her hope that she could make a better living. But working for an expatriate did not guarantee that things would improve, as she described her boss as “demanding and stingy.”

She reached the peak of her troubles when she fell ill and requested two days off to undergo treatment.

But Ludiah’s employer did not believe her story, accused her of lying and sacked her without any compensation.

Feeling treated unfairly, she reported her case to the National Domestic Workers’ Advocacy Network (Jala PRT), which submitted it to the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta).

She was lucky, because from among all the cases LBH Jakarta had to deal with, hers drew their attention.

However, the institute had to issue three legal notices before Ludiah’s former boss responded and paid half of what she demanded, following some tough negotiations.

She believed that after having served the family for four years, she deserved some compensation.

Unlike workers in formal jobs, domestic workers do not have the right to compensation from employers upon termination under Indonesia’s current laws.

Abuse, Low Wages, Excessive Working Hours

Ludiah’s story is just one example of how domestic work, as a profession, remains unrecognized by the country’s legal system.

Jala PRT says most cases of maltreatment of domestic workers involve verbal and physical abuse and a disregard of their right to fair wages and reasonable working hours.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) recorded that there are around 4.2 million domestic workers in Indonesia, many of whom are paid as little as Rp 800,000 per month. While there are some men employed as domestic workers, most are women.

“Domestic workers have been facing tough challenges since the beginning. We are always pushing the government to ratify the draft law on the protection of domestic workers,” Lita Anggraini, national coordinator of Jala PRT, told the Jakarta Globe.

The bill contains clauses that aim to regulate the profession and compel employers to draw up employment contracts for their domestic workers. These contracts will have to stipulate eight-hour shifts, in addition to fair wages, weekly rest days, annual leave and more.

The bill was placed on the priority list of the National Legislation Program between 2004 and 2009 but put on hold until 2011 when members of House of Representatives Commission XI finally touched it. The committee held several discussions and even conducted comparative studies in South Africa and Argentina.

It is never easy to pass a bill into law in Indonesia and despite the draft having proceeded to finalization and being submitted to the National Legislative Body (Baleg), the 2014 elections saw it being placed on the backburner.

In the following year, the situation became worse as House Commission XI and Baleg decided to remove the bill from the priority list to make way for others.

The National Domestic Workers' Advocacy Network (Jala PRT) says most cases of maltreatment of domestic workers involve verbal and physical abuse and a disregard of their right to fair wages and reasonable working hours. (Antara Photo/Yusran Uccang)
The National Domestic Workers’ Advocacy Network (Jala PRT) says most cases of maltreatment of domestic workers involve verbal and physical abuse and a disregard of their right to fair wages and reasonable working hours. (Antara Photo/Yusran Uccang)


Lita of Jala PRT said about 85 percent of domestic workers are women who work in a closed environment, such as in an employer’s home, while the remainder, mostly men, work as guards, gardeners or in other domestic jobs.

According to ILO deputy director Michiko Miyamoto, the main reason domestic workers are predominantly women, is due to the fact that it is connected with female unpaid labor. This is also part of the reason the sector is being neglected and workers are paid poorly.

“It is because of the culture of women taking care of the family, so people have this stigma that women are better at taking care of the house. And also, about the educational level that is very low, compared to men, so they’re kind of trapped in this job. They’re also afraid to say what they want,” Miyamoto told the Jakarta Globe.

Magdalena Sitorus of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) said this is also due to society’s mindset that it should be women performing household duties as it is in their nature.

“The main problem is how to shift and gradually change the way [society] views this cause?” she said.

Lack of Political Will

Many legislators are reluctant to pass the domestic workers’ bill because they fear that the proposed higher wages could result in wider demands for a higher minimum wage.

“Many of them also employ domestic workers. They often employ more than two – sometimes even up to five. They are reluctant to pass this bill because it would become a burden on them having to pay their salaries,” Lita said.

Commission XI member Eva Sundari conceded that the domestic workers’ bill has not been a priority for the House over the past few years.

“This bill is not popular because it does not involve many parties and interests,” Eva said.

Magdalena of Komnas Perempuan also has the same perspective. She said the bill is a battle to balance interclass relations and interests as employers of domestic workers are often in the upper-middle-income group.

“Work on this draft bill has been ongoing for 14 years without any clarity, which means employers are not ready for it to become law,” Magdalena said.

She said the bill does not only seek to protect the rights of domestic workers, but also those of employers, as there are some cases where workers walk away from their jobs or lack the skills to perform household tasks.

“For example, there are also several cases where domestic workers are not capable of performing their tasks and even abandon their jobs. Those things will also go into the work contract and the bill will regulate that. The bill will provide certainty for both parties. People should know that the draft law on domestic workers does not only favor workers, but that it will also benefit employers,” Magdalena said.

She added that for the past 14 years, Komnas Perempuan has been fighting alongside Jala PRT to have the bill ratified. She said there are many people who are sympathetic to the cause but that the members of political parties are not ready to pass the bill.

“There is still a struggle, but we need to maintain this cause, gradually and hopefully this will be legalized someday. I know it will be impossible this year, but we will push this cause during the 2019 presidential election,” Magdalena said.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto said her office has been pushing for the domestic workers’ bill, while also urging the government to adopt the ILO’s Convention on Domestic Workers.

“We have been advocating this for almost five years. We also don’t call them ‘pembantu‘ [‘helpers’] but ‘pekerja rumah tangga‘ [‘domestic workers’] instead, because they’re workers,” she said.

What if the Bill Ever Becomes Law?

Magdalena said if the bill was ever passed into law, people should prepare for the consequences. Employers would have to raise domestic workers’ salaries.

However, raising their salaries to close to each province’s minimum wage must take workers’ skills into account.

“If we push this bill to become law, there are several consequences. It is also hard to push workers’ salaries to meet the minimum wage. As a matter of fact, those who need domestic workers are often young couples who do not earn high incomes,” Magdalena said.

“With higher wages come greater responsibility. Workers must have the knowledge and skills to do their jobs,” she said.

She said there are training centers where domestic workers can improve their skills, which would enable them to earn better wages. However, these are currently few in in number.

“There are state-run training centers, but only a few at the moment and we need more to prepare [domestic workers],” Magdalena said.

Miyamoto meanwhile said changing mindsets is also important and it should not only be by employers, but also domestic workers. Most of them do not see themselves as skilled workers; they also do not know their rights, so many accept poor working conditions.

“I mean that’s not really acceptable. So having information and knowledge of their basic rights are powerful tools to change such concept. So in my view, it has to come from the workers to voice their concerns, for example, to say, ‘I can do this really well, but I need a break,'” Miyamoto said.

She said the government is making some effort, especially on the rights and protections of migrant workers, which will hopefully in the future also extend to those working in Indonesia.

She added that the logic is the same: “The more professionalized you are, the better they will treat and pay you.”

“The government already has a standard. We have conducted a couple of skills training sessions [for domestic workers],” Miyamoto said.

“At the start of the training, we talk to the workers and tell them: ‘Okay you know we work with you because we want to uplift your status, but you also have to commit yourself. You know you can’t just come and not attend the next training.’ It’s a commitment for both sides.”