Understanding Indonesian Domestic Workers’ Rights
The 100th session of the International Labor Conference to be held in June will consider the adoption of a Domestic Workers Convention. While this would undoubtedly be a step forward for the protection of domestic workers’ rights, a firm understanding of the plight of these workers is necessary to ensure the convention is effective.
There are at least four basic elements that must be considered to fully understand the specific conditions affecting domestic workers.
The first is that they work in domestic spaces. Personal homes are the workplaces in which domestic workers perform their daily jobs. Some even live permanently at their place of employment. This results in some specific consequences, for example, that domestic workers often live and work in isolation from the outside world.
It also means that their working conditions are totally dependent on their employers, resulting in both good and bad working conditions.
Another consequence of isolation is that it is difficult for domestic workers to join labor unions and become involved in these unions’ activities. Moreover, some are not given regular holidays, which makes it impossible for them to gain access to any organization.
For migrant workers employed outside of their home country, the right to join organizations or labor unions that may defend their cause can be even harder to realize as some recipient countries do not regulate domestic work under their national labor laws. Saudi Arabia is one such country. In countries such as these, migrant domestic workers are employed without any guarantees for their security.
According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, “As if I Am Not Human,” the lack of labor laws to protect migrant workers has contributed to the violation of workers’ rights in Saudi Arabia, leading to poor working conditions such as long hours and no annual leave.
The mistreatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is a familiar story commonly reported in our nation’s newspapers. The story of Sumiati, a domestic worker from Dompu, West Nusa Tenggara, who was beaten by her Saudi employer, is just one example of the poor conditions faced by our domestic workers overseas.
The second element that needs to be understood is that domestic workers contribute to the economy as much as any other workers.
To borrow the classification of economist Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations,” a domestic worker is considered an “unproductive laborer” because the labor materially “adds to the value of nothing,” as opposed to laborers involved in manufacturing, who “add generally to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit.”
However, domestic workers perform various jobs and responsibilities just as any other workers do.
Since domestic workers are employed in domestic spaces, they carry out a type of household service for a person or a family. Their jobs include cleaning, cooking, laundry and ironing, taking care of the elderly and children, and other household duties. In short, they provide valuable assistance in a supporting role.
Some are employed by more than one household and are forced to take on long working hours. Domestic workers should not be excluded from labor laws simply because their work is materially “unproductive.” Domestic workers should be included under labor laws the same as any other type of worker.
The third element that needs to be understood is that most domestic workers are women. Many female workers travel overseas to look for work because they have difficulty finding jobs at home.
They often have a limited education and skills and only the minimum knowledge about the culture of their receiving countries. These disadvantages often put them at greater risk of facing violations in the workplace, making them vulnerable to forced labor, sexual assault and human trafficking
Finally, while domestic workers contribute significantly to the economy in a support role, they generally receive only the minimum social protection.
The first beneficiaries of their labor are the countries in which they work. The economic success of Singapore is one example of how a country can hugely benefit from the presence of foreign domestic workers. The number of domestic workers in Singapore, many of them migrants, has increased rapidly since the 1970s.
Another contribution made by domestic workers is the remittances that they send to their home countries. These remittances not only help support their families, but also the economies of their home countries.
While migrant domestic workers contribute significantly to both their host and home countries, most receive minimal social protection. As found in a 2005 study by the Institute for Ecosoc Rights, many Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore receive no regular holidays, are employed in labor-intensive jobs, receive minimum breaks, have limited access to information, are provided with improper restrooms and are denied prayer breaks.
The establishment of a convention on the rights of domestic workers is one part of the answer to giving them more respect and better access to social protection.
Faishol Adib is the author of “Living with Uncertainty: The Experience of Undocumented Indonesian Migrant Workers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.”