Indonesia Pushes for Better Migrant-Worker Protection

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Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty

Indonesian domestic worker Siti Hajar in a shelter at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on June 23, 2009, recounts the story of her alleged torture by her employer

Siti Hajar's face — scarred with red blisters and scabs — told of the horror. For the past three years, the 33-year-old Indonesian domestic worker from West Java says she was abused by her Malaysian employer, being beaten, doused with boiling water and caned. In June, the ongoing violence finally landed her in a Kuala Lumpur-based hospital. Photos of her burned face, distributed by Indonesian television stations and newspapers, sparked outrage throughout the country, prompting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to make a personal call to her as she recovered in the hospital.

Sadly, Hajar's story is all too common in a nation where over 5 million citizens are working abroad in households and factories across the globe. Indonesia's migrant workers have been reporting both physical and mental abuse for years, particularly in neighboring Malaysia where over two million Indonesians make their living as maids and construction workers.

After the public outcry over Hajar's case, in late June Indonesia temporarily blocked its domestic workers from going to Malaysia to work until the two countries hammer out additional protections to a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on migrant workers. Indonesia's proposed amendments — including acknowledging workers' rights to wage increases and a day off each week — aim to protect domestic workers better by providing opportunities to build support amongst friends and ensure proper payment. This is not the first time where tensions have boiled between the two neighboring states over migrant abuse, but this time, they hope to reach a full agreement by early August.

The flow of migrant workers between Indonesia and Malaysia is considered one of the world's largest and busiest labor hubs. If passed, these provisions will help protect the roughly 3,000 workers Indonesia sends to Malaysia every month. The vast majority of these work as maids and domestic workers and remit billions home every year, earning them their nickname of "foreign exchange heroines."

The risks for domestic workers are staggering, from verbal and physical abuse to grueling work hours (in some cases, over 100 hours per week), few if any days off, nonpayment of wages, and appalling work conditions. Although more than 2,000 complaints of abuse are filed with the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur each month, it's impossible to say exactly how many workers are abused each year, largely because the exploitation is carried out in private. It's a problem for domestic helpers across the world, most of whom work in isolation and many of whom arrive via underground channels, out of sight from formal regulations.

Indonesia's actions are only the latest amongst migrant-sending countries seeking ways to protect their people when they go overseas, a shift from a time when financial considerations trumped all. However, some experts say privately that Indonesia's move may be a temporary gesture to please constituents during an election year. "There's greater attention being paid and more reporting and willingness of police and governments to take action in these cases," says Alan Boulton, Director of the International Labor Organization's Jakarta office. "NGOs have been able to bring attention [to] abuse cases."

As sending countries develop economically, they "now feel they have a moral obligation to protect their workers," says Christopher Lowenstein-Lom of the International Organization for Migration (ILO) in Bangkok. The Philippines — one of the world's largest migrant-sending countries — has set up worker-resource centers in destination countries to help distressed workers find help while they're overseas. Thailand, both a source and sending country for migrant labor, also offers consular services for its workers overseas, many who have suffered at the hands of human traffickers.

In the past year, migrant-rights groups and governments have grown increasingly concerned as the global recession has made migrants more vulnerable to abuse. More workers are being taken advantage of by unfair wages or, worse, not being paid at all as companies have folded. Unemployed migrant workers in host countries are also willing to take on increasingly risky work to maintain their incomes or pay back growing debts. And as sending countries continue to battle hard times, the supply of people looking for jobs overseas — even in dangerous conditions — has increased.

While many migrant-sending countries sign MOUs with employing nations as a way to build relations and bridge differences between labor laws, some migration experts are skeptical about their efficacy as typically, MOUs are nonbinding agreements. "They are written in very, very general terms," says Maruja Asis, research director at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila. "The implementation has been very problematic." Some experts say that MOUs can even harm migrants because they create a hierarchy of protection based on ethnicity or type of work. Host countries can be selective with which origin countries they will forge MOUs, creating situations in which some workers are better protected than others.

Human-rights and local migrant groups sharply criticized Indonesia's 2006 MOU with Malaysia for failing to include widespread human-rights protections, including a clear minimum wage, a weekly holiday or stringent monitoring mechanisms for labor agencies — often the source of abuse and fraud. Labor and migrant-rights groups hope this summer's revisions will beef up mechanisms to better protect migrant workers. Next summer, domestic workers will also feature high on the agenda at the annual International Labor Conference in Geneva where participants will try to develop international labor rights for domestic workers.

Experts say multilateral and regional forums like these are crucial to help deliver a stronger message about the basic rights of migrants, but they will not solve the vast array of risks that migrants face everyday in the work place. Multilateral frameworks "need the awareness of all sectors to provide protection to migrant workers," says Premjai Vungsiriphaisal, researcher at the Asian Research Center for Migration. Tragically, progress didn't come in time for Siti Hajar. There's hope that it will for thousands of other women like her.