Jakarta – Creating legislation that regulates the employment of domestic workers sounds like a novelty, but we have to set a time frame of perhaps 10 years at most before bringing these workers, who do menial but important work in our homes, under the country's labor laws, like any other worker. When that happens, we won't need a separate law that discriminates against domestic workers.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has ordered the House of Representatives to speed up deliberation on the domestic workers bill. Until the President raised the issue, the bill had been dormant for nearly two decades, under the silence of government, politicians and even civil society organizations, which are usually vocal.
Domestic workers, which include all household employees like cooks, cleaners, babysitters, caregivers, gardeners and security guards, currently do not enjoy any legal protection because Indonesia's labor laws do not regard them as formal workers. They typically work long hours for a pittance and often do not receive full weekends or holiday bonuses. Many endure physical and emotional abuse, and there is little recourse for them under the existing labor laws.
Few live-in servants are treated as members of the family. Instead, the majority are treated like property that owners can do with as they like. In the absence of a written contractual agreement, many arrangements are nothing short of a master-slave relationship.
The draft bill on protection for domestic workers was initially submitted in 2004 by the National Advocacy Network for Domestic Workers (JALA-PRT). No progress was made in the intervening 19 years, indicating a lack of interest among both politicians and the public. Even the 26 organizations and individuals grouped in the JALA-PRT were as aggressive as they could have been in advocating for the legislation.
The draft bill proposes that household employers and domestic workers sign a written contract stipulating the terms of employment, covering salary, work hours, benefits including health insurance, weekend and holiday entitlement, education and training. It also stipulates a minimum working age of 18 years.
Ironically, these are also the very same terms Indonesia insists on including in memorandums of understanding with foreign governments when their citizens employ Indonesian migrant workers in private homes. But when it comes to hiring their fellow countrymen in households at home, the government and civil society organizations that have been vocal in demanding better protection for Indonesian migrant workers overseas go silent.
The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party opposed the legislation over fears that domestic workers, who are widely accepted as belonging to the informal sector, would be formalized. The country's two largest parties echo the sentiments of many people who are reluctant to be tied down by a law on how they employ and treat their "household help".
There are also business and political pressures to maintain the status quo.
Supplying domestic workers is a lucrative business both at home and abroad, particularly to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, as well as almost all Middle Eastern countries. The earnings these workers send back to their families in Indonesia amount to sizable foreign exchange revenue.
A lack of jobs has also forced many Indonesians, particularly those with little to no schooling, to take up these menial jobs which, as important as they are, are looked down on by society. Indonesia is comfortable with its reputation as one of the world's biggest suppliers of domestic workers.
When the House takes up Jokowi's call to speed up the bill's legislation, it should take a long-term perspective. The law must not only bring these domestic workers into the formal sector, but also empower them through education and training, so they can lift themselves up on the social-economic ladder.
Many domestic workers would likely stay in the field, but they would be considered professionals under the new law, with decent pay, work conditions, respect and dignity, whether they work in Indonesia or abroad.