With Paper in Hand, Indonesian Maids Fight Exploitation


OCTOBER 17, 2017

Kuala Lumpur. Like millions of Indonesian women who earn a living through domestic work, Leni Suryani thought that long hours for a meager salary was just the lot of a maid.

But a pilot training scheme for domestic workers helped her improve her skills and earn a certificate, giving her the confidence to ask for a higher salary.

"I have been a domestic helper for 15 years, I didn't think this piece of paper is important, I was wrong," said the 33-year-old mother, who worked as a maid in Singapore and Malaysia for six years before returning to Indonesia in 2003.

Suryani is one the first graduates from the training which aims to enhance domestic workers' skills and win recognition for their work as a profession in a bid to fight exploitation and modern slavery.

While Indonesia is a major provider of maids for places like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East, some four million Indonesian women are also employed in households locally to cook, clean or to look after children and the elderly.

Maids account for the biggest group of Indonesian women who work. Despite this, they are not considered formal workers, leaving them vulnerable to abuses and unprotected under local labour laws.

Excessive working hours, lack of a formal contract, unpaid wages are just some of the most common abuses Indonesian domestic helpers face, according to campaigners.

Unlike their counterparts who work overseas, who must go through extensive training regulated by the government, there are no such provisions for local maids.

Suryani said she brushed up her skills on cooking different cuisines, housekeeping and childcare during her training, as well as learning English and using computers.

At the end of the 200-hour course last year and after a test, she received a certificate given by a national professional certification board that recognised her skills.

"It taught me how to work more efficiently," Suryani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Jakarta.

"My employer, an American expatriate family, was happy with the certificate I got and the way I work, it gave me confidence to ask for a higher salary and they agreed."

Overworked, Underpaid, Unprotected

The International Labour Organization (ILO), which runs the training with local workers' groups, said about 200 women have been trained in different batches since 2016, with the most recent group of 40 completing their course in August this year.

Its national advocacy specialist, Irfan Afandi, said domestic work is poorly regulated in Indonesia, and most maids are overworked, underpaid and unprotected.

Some earn as little as the equivalent of $150 each month.

"The laws don't see them as formal workers and many maids themselves are unaware of what exploitation is," Afandi said.

"They think working from 6am to 8pm is normal and they should do anything they are told - from cooking to car washing and gardening. There is no clear scope of their job."

Globally over 40 million people are trapped as slaves last year in forced labour and forced marriages, new estimates by key anti-slavery groups last month showed.

This includes those who work as domestic workers, and Asia Pacific has the second-highest prevalence of modern slavery after Africa.

Widespread abuses and near slave-like living conditions of Indonesian women who work abroad as domestic helpers have captured the media limelight in the past but such mistreatment within Indonesia often gets less attention.

The ILO's training not only teaches domestic workers skills, but also educates them on workers' rights.

"They are confident because now they are professional domestic workers. They learnt the skills, it increases their employability and prospects for better work conditions," Afandi said.

For Suryani, the certificate help to break the stereotype that her work is "unskilled" and only meant for the poor and uneducated. She is now volunteering to train other domestic workers and pass on what she has learnt.

"I am a proud domestic worker," she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation