Earlier this month, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, started quite a stir, especially in the Middle East and East Asia, when he announced plans to limit and then stop the migration of live-in domestic workers. The President argued that much of the abuse of young Indonesian women stemmed from their working in informal, unregulated sectors, and that that has to stop. Indonesia wants those who work as domestic workers overseas to live in their own quarters, to work regular hours, and to enjoy one day off each week and public holidays. This is big news, on a scale of Los Angeles imagining a day without Mexicans.
Indonesia provides Singapore with most of its domestic workers. Currently 125,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Singapore, the overwhelming majority as live-in. 50,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Malaysia, and 150,000 work in Hong Kong. According to the Indonesian government, of the more than 7 million Indonesians working abroad, 60% are domestic workers. That’s over 4.2 million women, a lot of women and a lot of money.
Not surprisingly, employers in the receiving nations are `lukewarm’. Indonesian women workers’ groups argue that the solution to the problem of abuse of domestic workers overseas is for the State to actually protect them, rather than cut off their freedom of movement. While the President talks of national shame and dignity, women workers’ groups argue for decent work and more protections.
Where everyone is in agreement is that abuse of Indonesian, and other transnational, domestic workers is rampant. The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, two years ago, sparked more than mass mobilizations. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih had gone to Hong Kong to work so as to be able to attend university. After eight months of torture, she was dumped at the airport and sent back to Indonesia. The sight of her damaged body sparked outrage. Two years later, she says, “I still have problems breathing. I cannot go swimming because I cannot get water into my ears. And I still have the scars. I need to see the doctor from time to time.”
The abuse of domestic workers is as old as domestic work itself, as is the work of organizing among domestic workers. What’s new is the transnational. That has meant, on one hand, that domestic workers, especially live-in domestic workers, are radically, viciously isolated, often with no place to go. In many countries, that lack of place is codified by labor and migration laws. These women are beaten by their bosses and trapped by State policy. Additionally, it takes money to travel, obtain visas and work permits, and to find employment. That means overseas domestic workers necessarily incur large debts. They are trapped in indebtedness. They are beaten by the bosses and trapped by international fiscal and monetary policy.
The domestic workers of this not-so-new neoliberal world order engage in domestic work largely because they want to use the money for the future, and the jobs available at home are too few and too low paying. For the past decades, this scam has been run to the fill the coffers of the sending nation-States, through remittances, and of the receiving nation-States, by subsidizing the entire care industry. People in Hong Kong are wondering who will pay for childcare, eldercare, home health care and so much more if the Indonesians really do vanish and, even more, if the Philippines national government follows suit? From Hong Kong to Singapore and beyond, people really are beginning to imagine a day without Indonesians.
Around the world, women domestic workers are organizing. They’re pushing for Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights in the United States and in Kuwait. They’re organizing domestic workers’ unions in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re mobilizing everywhere. Most South American countries have ratified the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania domestic workers’ unions are on the move. The time to end the super-exploitation of domestic workers occurred decades, centuries, ago, but now is the time to support their efforts to end the global household plantation system. This is the story of women breaking the chains, locally and globally, of bondage, old and new, and seizing and creating power for themselves, collectively, in the name of women’s dignity. My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and I am unafraid. Justice for all!
(Photo and Video Credit: You Tube)