Side Views

Women workers in Indonesia: Give them a reason to stay — Sri Ranjini Mei Hua

FEB 19 — Five years from now, Singapore and other places which have been traditionally reliant on foreign domestic labour, such as Hong Kong and Malaysia, will no longer see an Indonesian domestic worker in their midst. At least that is what the Indonesian government hopes to achieve by 2017.

While destination places are constantly trying to improve the welfare of foreign domestic workers due to international pressure and local needs, what steps will the Indonesian government take to encourage these women workers to stay?

In October last year, Singapore Manpower Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the ministry was considering making it mandatory for employers to give their maids at least one day off a week. Furthermore, employers can be fined up to S$5,000 (RM12,100) and/or jailed up to six months if they fail to comply with the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act which states that workers must receive sufficient rest.

In Hong Kong, foreign domestic workers have won the right of permanent residency and are now included in its minimum wage legislation.

Just last month, a two-and-a-half year ban on sending Indonesian domestic workers to Malaysia was lifted after both countries agreed on various protection and assistance measures for domestic workers.

These are reflective of a changing mindset toward and improving conditions for foreign domestic labour in Asia.

However, if the Indonesian government actively looks into providing and promoting alternative employment options for the millions of Indonesian women currently working overseas, these women are likely to stay or return home, resulting in fewer Indonesian maids to go around.

Singapore is preparing itself for a shortfall in the supply of domestic workers in that the Ministry of Manpower has begun encouraging employers to explore alternative solutions such as child-care centres, playschools and hiring local part-time domestic help.

Although these are supposedly less convenient options, Singapore employers will have little choice but to adapt if the cost of hiring foreign domestic workers increases due to limited supply.

Under the Domestic Worker Roadmap 2017, Indonesia plans to stop sending its nationals to work abroad as domestic workers.

The measure came in response to unending reports of mistreatment of domestic workers in destinations especially in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The basic tenets of the roadmap seem logical — domestic workers should be treated like other workers in terms of earning minimum wage, working fixed hours, and being entitled to leave.

However, it misses an important point; that domestic work is different from most other types of work and so the guidelines to regulate the domestic service industry should be based on the scope and specific conditions of such work.

The booming domestic service industry is indicative of a larger trend of increasing female migration in Asia. Since the 1980s, there have been a growing number of women moving out of Indonesia to find work overseas.

According to the National Authority for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Overseas Workers, women make up about 90 per cent of all Indonesian migrant workers, bringing the number of women overseas to an estimated six million.

With push factors such as low educational qualifications and a lack of job opportunities in their areas of origin, in combination with pull factors such as the lure of better wages abroad, a large proportion of Indonesian female labour migrants migrate to Saudi Arabia to work as domestic workers.

These female migrants are predominantly from West Java, an important outflow region of female international labour migrants from Indonesia.

While the downside of increasing female labour migration is the scarcity of caregivers in many Indonesian villages, the upside is the amount of remittances sent home to sustain their families.

According to the World Bank, the registered remittances sent by Indonesian migrant workers, the majority of whom are women, account for more than US$6 billion each year, making it the second-highest source of income after oil and gas.

Yet, according to state-led programmes such as the Pembinaan Kesehjeteraan Keluarga (otherwise known as the Family Welfare Program), women are considered the secondary income generator, perpetuating the archaic notion that women tend not to contribute financially to the family.

In effect, this stereotype also justifies paying lower wages for women workers who do the same work as men, for instance on the paddy fields in Java, despite there not being any evidence to suggest that women are less productive than their male counterparts.

It is no wonder then that Indonesian women are still migrating to Saudi Arabia despite the moratorium imposed by the Indonesian government, which came into effect on Aug. 1, 2011. The potential economic incentive to migrate far outweighs the risks of abuse and exploitation.

The idea of earning four to five times as much overseas as they would earn in their home country, draws many Indonesian women, not just those at the bottom rung of society, but also those from the middle class, and with college degrees under their belts.

In fact, there have been many reports of women being misled by errant recruitment agents from both sending and receiving destinations, into thinking that they would receive higher salaries and experience better living conditions abroad.

Very often, however, these dreams fail to translate into reality, leaving not just the women to suffer, but their families as well.

With a GDP that has reached US$1 trillion, and a projected growth rate of 6 percent this year, Indonesia’s economy — Southeast Asia’s largest, appears to be on the right track. Its robust economic growth amid the sombre global economic climate proves Indonesia has more to offer than meets the eye.

However, keeping things at status quo is not going to retain the female labour force in Indonesia. Women workers will not be content to stay and work in Indonesia while constantly harbouring the idea that something better awaits them elsewhere.

Therefore, unless and until these women are convinced that there are equally if not more attractive opportunities for them at home, they will continue to leave the country, for better or for worse. — The Jakarta Post

* The writer is a research associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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