“I woke up at 4:15 a.m.,” Asma said. “I was exhausted when I went to sleep at 10 p.m. I only had five minutes’ rest … I did not get any days off [or] salary.” Asma is one of an estimated 1.8 million women and girls in Indonesia who engage in domestic work, one of the largest sources of employment for rural women in the country. Her story — too real for too many — transcends national boundaries, resonating with the more than 52 million maids, nannies and caregivers worldwide whose labor is essential to the households they serve.
But domestic workers in Indonesia do more than cook, clean and care for their employers’ families. Their labor is also essential to Indonesia’s national economy, and yet the government is not protecting them.
Indonesia, like many other countries in Asia and the Middle East, excludes domestic workers — or pembantu rumah tangga — from its national labor laws. This leaves their work largely unregulated and denies domestic workers access to basic rights enjoyed by other workers, such as a minimum wage, weekly days off, and overtime. Their exclusion from key labor protections is exacerbated by the unique isolation domestic workers face in the private homes of their employers — where they are often subject to an array of exploitative conditions and criminal abuse.
Once marginalized and invisible, a new dawn could be approaching for Asma and other domestic workers like her. In collaboration with full-time domestic workers who are driving national efforts, stalwart activists — such as Anis Hidayah of Jakarta-based Migrant Care, and Lita Anggraini of Indonesia’s National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy — are engaging and mobilizing domestic workers at the community, national and international level.
Domestic workers are using innovative strategies to unite their efforts into a global movement with its voices heard in legislative chambers from the Philippines to South Africa, and Italy to Argentina. Domestic workers around the world are partnering with labor unions and civil society groups, putting their issues front and center of their governments’ national agendas and demanding that their basic human rights be respected.
A new report from the International Domestic Workers Network, the International Trade Union Confederation and Human Rights Watch tracks the impressive momentum of the global domestic workers’ movement over the last two years. Based on interviews from domestic workers and civil society representatives from over 20 countries, “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform” explores the creative strategies activists have used to mobilize and strengthen labor laws at the national and international level.
Over a decade of organizing by domestic worker activists — including Indonesia’s robust movement — has culminated in the establishment of a groundbreaking new treaty that sets out the first international labor standards to promote decent work for domestic workers. The International Labor Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention entitles domestic workers to the same basic rights as other workers, such as a minimum wage, social security, weekly days off and clear information on the terms and conditions of their employment. Governments whose countries are party to the convention are obligated to protect domestic workers from violence, regulate private employment agencies that recruit domestic workers, and prevent children from laboring in domestic work.
According to a 2013 ILO study, over 20 million domestic workers are employed in Asia, making the region the single largest employer of domestic workers worldwide. The Philippines was the first Asian country to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should ensure that Indonesia is the second.
President Yudhoyono expressed his unequivocal support for the Domestic Workers Convention at the 2011 ILO Conference in Geneva. Meanwhile, though, Indonesia’s Bill on the Protection of Domestic Workers — put before parliament more than two years ago — has made little progress toward enactment, and its current provisions fall short of international standards that would provide meaningful legal reform.
The Indonesian government should bring its domestic workers under the protection of national labor laws and ensure that those laws are strengthened to comply with international human rights standards. It should closely work with civil society groups to strengthen the proposed domestic workers’ bill, laying the groundwork for Indonesia’s ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention.
Indonesia has an historic opening where the voices of domestic workers like Asma are transcending the walls of their employers’ homes to occupy a rare public and political space. The government should listen and respond to these voices, by taking concrete steps to ensure that all of Indonesia’s workers get the dignity they deserve, the value they earn and the respect that they demand.
Matthew Rullo, a coordinator in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, is a co-author of “Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labor Reform.” Follow him on Twitter: @MatthewRullo.