Indonesian migrant domestic workers lack protection – how can legal academics help?

An Indonesian migrant worker speaks on a mobile phone in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong. Jerome Favre/EPA

Indonesian migrant domestic workers lack protection – how can legal academics help?

In the third debate ahead of Indonesia’s 17 April presidential election the two vice-presidential candidates discussed employment, education, health and socio-cultural issues. But during the March 17 debate neither Ma'ruf Amin, incumbent Joko Widodo’s running mate, nor Sandiaga Uno from Prabowo Subianto’s side, talked about how Indonesia would better protect Indonesian domestic migrant workers.

Indonesia sent 283,640 migrant workers abroad in 2018. Of that number 198,975 are female and 150,000 of them are migrant domestic workers. This makes Indonesia one of the major sources of migrant domestic workers in the world.

In 2018, they sent US$8.8 billion back to Indonesia in remittances. That’s equivalent to almost 1% of Indonesia’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Despite these workers’ huge contribution to the economy, Indonesia has yet to provide adequate protection for them. Last year Indonesia once again mourned the death of one of its migrant domestic workers, Tuti Tursilawati. The Saudi Arabian government executed her in October after she was found guilty of killing her employer who had raped her.

At least 103 Indonesian migrant workers have been sentenced to death since 2011, including 13 in Saudi Arabia.

The fact that neither of the vice-presidential candidates discussed this problem has hinted at their ignorance about the issue. I believe legal academics have a big role to fill this gap and to enhance the protection of our migrant workers.

How legal academics can help

The legal problems the Indonesian migrant domestic workers face are multifaceted, interdisciplinary and require rich human rights perspectives. Each of the cases may involve different legal perspectives, including labour law, human rights, women’s rights and international law. This is where legal academics’ role is important.

Last September, together with fellow academics and law students, I met a community of migrant domestic workers and their families in the eastern and southern parts of Lampung in Sumatra. We discussed various problems they were facing, including the issue of the huge recruitment fees they must pay to get jobs abroad.

As the government has not ratified the International Labour Organisation’s 1998 Private Employment Agencies Convention that prohibits charging workers placement fees, Indonesian migrant domestic workers must pay relatively high recruitment fees.

Legal academics can become their legal advisers to help them with legal-related affairs. We can assist migrant domestic workers before they leave the country by offering basic legal know-how. This can be done through community engagement programs in universities.

We can also help inform the government in relation to the new law on the protection of Indonesia’s migrant workers. It replaces the old law and offers better protection for migrant workers, even though it doesn’t specifically mention migrant female domestic workers.

Legal scholars can also assist domestic workers with legal problems through universities’ legal aid institutions. We can share our insights for every legal case that these domestic workers are facing. Universities’ legal aid can work with the government and related non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Law students should not be excluded from this effort as they can exercise their legal skills by engaging and analysing different real cases. They can join internship programs in various institutions focusing on migrant worker issues.

What went wrong?

Many studies have explored legal problems faced by migrant domestic workers, but the situation remains complicated.

Sending workers (especially female migrant domestic workers) abroad has become an industry in Indonesia. Key players in this industry include travel agents, labour recruiters, brokers, interpreters and housing agents.

These players treat workers as commodities. While they gain financial benefits, migrant workers continue to suffer great losses. They suffer physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Many endure long working hours and harsh working conditions without being paid.

Although Indonesia placed a moratorium on sending domestic workers to the Middle East, it did little to stop the practice.

Indonesian women are still being sent to the Middle East through various channels. A 2016 survey by Migrant Care indicated that at least 2,000 domestic workers had left for Middle Eastern countries despite the ban. Their illegal status may complicate the migrant workers’ position under the law.

The complexity of the industry and the workers’ legal status will require expertise from various fields. And legal academics can be one of the sources of this.

What can be done

Efforts to help migrant domestic workers must start with changing the perspective of every stakeholder. They should see these workers as human beings and not just a means to make profits.

This shift of paradigm is essential to improve the situation for Indonesian migrant domestic workers.

It can start with training sessions before they leave Indonesia. This training must teach workers necessary work skills as well as basic human rights knowledge. This includes knowledge of work rights and the right to be protected during employment, the rights to receive health care and legal services during employment and the right to claim insurance. These rights are protected under Indonesian and international law.

Legal academics can help provide information to domestic workers on their destination countries. One legal scholar, Sulistyowati Irianto, and her colleague argue that apart from basic legal knowledge, understanding local culture is also essential. In certain countries, such as those of the Middle East, violations of cultural norms may be considered criminal offences.

Therefore, providing cultural and legal knowledge to migrant domestic workers during pre-departure briefings is a must. Legal scholars can play an important role to empower these workers, especially when Indonesia’s next leaders still do not see this as a priority.

Ariza Muthia and Rizkina Aliya have contributed to publishing this article.