Weak Protections as Global Body Finalizes Comprehensive Standards
May 31, 2011
Malaysia and Indonesia have missed an important opportunity to make changes that would truly protect women who take on tough jobs far from home. Indonesian domestic workers will still be handing over the first several months of their salaries to repay recruitment fees, and they will still be laboring long hours for pitiful wages.
Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) - A revised agreement between Malaysia and Indonesia provides some benefits for migrant domestic workers but fails to provide some needed safeguards linked to low wages and high recruitment fees, Human Rights Watch said today. A series of high-profile abuse cases led Indonesia in June 2009 to ban new recruitment of Indonesian domestic workers for jobs in Malaysia until new protections were put in place.

The Indonesian labor minister, Muhaimin Iskandar, and the Malaysian human resources minister, Datuk Dr. S. Subramaniam, signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on May 30 in Bandung, Indonesia after two years of negotiations. The agreement included positive changes, Human Rights Watch said. It allows domestic workers to keep their passports instead of having to surrender them to their employers, and guarantees them a weekly day off. But the agreement does not set a minimum wage, as Indonesia had wanted, and perpetuates recruitment fee structures that leave workers indebted.

"Malaysia and Indonesia have missed an important opportunity to make changes that would truly protect women who take on tough jobs far from home," said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Indonesian domestic workers will still be handing over the first several months of their salaries to repay recruitment fees, and they will still be laboring long hours for pitiful wages."

The new agreement has been finalized as governments, trade unions, and employers' groups around the world are about to meet in Geneva about global labor standards for the estimated 100 million domestic workers, mostly women and girls. Members of the International Labor Organization (ILO) will begin negotiations on June 1 to finalize a text and vote on adopting this treaty.

The draft ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers would require countries where they work to provide them with employment conditions no less favourable than for other workers under the country's laws. It would also require written contracts for migrant domestic workers, freedom to leave the workplace during rest periods, and guidance on issues specific to domestic work, such as in-kind payments of room and board. In 2010, both Indonesia and Malaysia were among a minority of governments that opposed adopting the ILO Convention, although Indonesia has indicated it may support it this year.

"Governments around the world have been recognizing the need to end the discrimination and neglect of workers who care for children, clean homes, and cook meals," said Varia. "This is a landmark moment for protecting workers' rights, and Malaysia and Indonesia should fully support strong protections at home and abroad instead of falling further behind."

Until the 2009 recruitment freeze, Malaysia had 300,000 domestic workers, most from Indonesia. Since the freeze, Malaysia has faced a shortage of domestic workers that has partially been met by a sharp increase in domestic workers from Cambodia.

Malaysia's Employment Act excludes domestic workers from key labor protections such as weekly limits on hours of work. Domestic workers have reported thousands of complaints of abuse in Malaysia in recent years. Most involved excessively long working hours and unpaid wages, but they also included forced confinement in the workplace, physical and sexual violence, and forced labor.

In the absence of government regulations, employment agencies and employers typically set domestic workers' salaries based on their country of origin instead of their education and experience. Indonesian and Cambodian domestic workers often work for monthly wages of 400 to 600 ringgit (US$133 to 200). Filipina domestic workers in Malaysia earn the highest salary, at US$400 a month, because of requirements imposed by the Philippines government.

Malaysia has no national minimum wage, but has been considering introducing one for private sector workers. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress advocates a minimum wage of 900 ringgit (US$300), and the Malaysian government considers earnings less than 750 ringgit (US$250) to fall below the national poverty line.

"Migrant domestic workers are often desperate for jobs and have such little bargaining power that there is a strong case for government intervention," Varia said. "It is a real disappointment that after such prolonged negotiations, Malaysia refused to set a minimum wage for these easily exploited workers."

The two governments also agreed to cap recruitment fees at 4,511 ringgit (US$1,500). Employers must pay the entire amount up-front but are permitted to reclaim up to 1,800 ringgit (US$600) by cutting several months of the domestic worker's salary. The new agreement stipulates that no more than 50 percent of the worker's salary can be deducted each month. Current regulations on recruitment fees are widely ignored.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which employers restrict a domestic worker's freedom of movement to prevent her from running away before the debt is repaid. In other situations, domestic workers may be under such intense financial pressure that they endure abusive employment conditions so they can ultimately send money home.

Malaysia's neighbor, Singapore, capped salary deductions at the equivalent of two months of wages for domestic workers earlier this year, lower than in the Indonesia-Malaysia agreement.

"Deducting several months of a domestic worker's salary to repay recruitment fees contributes to grave abuses, including forced labor, trafficking, and conditions akin to slavery," Varia said. "Malaysia should have followed the lead of a number of countries in the Middle East that prohibit salary deductions altogether."