Arlina Arshad, Singapore – When Indonesian Elen Retno Bunga Anggraeny moved to Singapore in 2017 to become a domestic helper, she had to work for six months without salary to pay off $3,000 in agency fees back home.
Her employer was temperamental and scolded her often, but she pressed on, worrying about her debt, she told The Sunday Times via phone from her hometown in Cluring, East Java.
"I was so frightened of her yelling that I literally peed in my pants. After three months, I couldn't take it anymore and quit," said the 31-year-old.
She was placed with a second employer, who was "thankfully very kind". But she had to forgo two more months' salary to pay for transfer fees.
"I went abroad to work to ease economic hardship, but I couldn't send any money to my family for eight months," she said.
For years, domestic workers like Ms Elen have been left vulnerable to abusive wage practices by employment agencies and the labour brokers, referred to as "sponsors" in Indonesia, who recruit them.
With no clear explanation or breakdown of cost components, many workers enter blindly into "potong gaji" contracts, where the placement fees are settled through monthly salary deductions.
To protect migrant workers, the Indonesian government had issued in July an "exemption of placement fee policy", which frees workers in 10 job sectors, including domestic helpers, construction workers and caregivers, from placement fees. The policy will come into effect on Jan 15.
Ms Eva Trisiana, director of placement and protection of overseas workers at the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, said the policy was part of a 2017 law on migrant worker protection.
"The policy is to avoid overcharging in the placement process for them (workers). They find work overseas to support their families but instead, end up losing their income to pay off debts," she told The Sunday Times.
Dr Servulus Bobo Riti, from BP2MI, the state agency in charge of migrant worker protection, said employers in destination countries will now have to foot the bill.
Employers could be government agencies, private legal entities or individuals who hire workers, he added.
He outlined 12 cost components, but was unable to provide details such as costs.
"We have completed the technical guidelines, which we will soon announce to relevant parties and the public," he told The Sunday Times.
While migrant worker groups and domestic workers cheered the move, they were worried that foreign employers would hire workers more cheaply from other countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka instead.
There are around 127,000 Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore, around half the total number of foreign domestic workers.
Working abroad allows blue-collar workers to eke a comfortable living. A domestic worker in Indonesia typically earns around 419,739 rupiah (S$40) a month, according to the Indonesian statistics agency's February data.
Ms Anis Hidayah, co-founder of Jakarta-based Migrant Care, told The Sunday Times: "It's not right to shift the overcharges from workers to employers. The labour brokers who take big cuts from the fees paid by workers and exploit them are the ones we must eliminate."
Ms Iweng Karsiwen, co-founder of the Association of Indonesian Migrant Workers Families, said employment agencies and labour brokers often inflate their rates and keep mum about the breakdown of fees, which include accommodation, flight, medical check-up and passport and visa processing.
Former domestic worker Arumi Marzudhy, 34, recounted that two days before departing to Singapore in 2016, the Indonesian employment agency furnished a new figure of $3,000 in her employment contract, doubling the agreed fees.
"They said the extra $1,500 was bank interest because they had taken a bank loan to cover my expenses. This is unacceptable, this is wrong, I had to fight," she told The Sunday Times.
She called a local manpower official and the agency reverted to their original agreement.
Indonesian employment agencies and labour brokers contacted by The Sunday Times were miffed by the new policy, saying that domestic workers were playing the victim when they had been the ones borrowing large sums as "pocket money".
A labour broker, who declined to be named, said: "I can't work for free. I have to walk under the hot sun, in the rainstorm, for hours to find people in the villages. Bringing them down from the mountains to Jakarta, to Singapore, costs money."
For Ms Elen, the pain of having to forgo her salary has wisened her up, she said: "When I protested about the high fees then, my broker said 'It's okay, at least you're able to work abroad', and I left it at that. But now I say: If anything goes wrong, be brave to speak up."