(Kuala Lumpur) - Thousands of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia are being abused because government policies in both countries fail to protect them, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

More than 90 percent of the 240,000 domestic workers in Malaysia are Indonesian. The Human Rights Watch report documents how they typically work grueling 16 to 18 hour days, seven days a week, and earn less than U.S. $0.25 per hour.

Migrant workers worldwide send over $90 billion to developing countries, exceeding foreign aid. An increasing number of labor migrants are female. In Indonesia, 76 percent of all legal migrant workers in 2002 were women. Most female migrant workers are concentrated in low-paying, unregulated sectors like domestic work.

Malaysia’s laws exclude domestic workers from most labor protections and Indonesia does not yet have any specific laws protecting migrant workers. The two governments must amend labor laws, rigorously monitor labor agencies, and provide quality support services to victims, Human Rights Watch said.

“Indonesian domestic workers are treated like second-class humans,” said LaShawn Jefferson, executive director of Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia and Indonesia must actively protect the rights of women workers instead of leaving this to labor agencies who are often responsible for committing abuses themselves.”

The 110-page Human Rights Watch report, “Help Wanted: Abuses against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia,” documents the abuse and exploitation that Indonesian female domestic workers experience at each step of the migration process.

Most domestic workers are forbidden to leave their workplace and unknown numbers suffer psychological, physical, and sexual assault by labor agents and employers. Some migrant domestic workers are caught in situations of trafficking and forced labor: they are deceived about the conditions and type of work, confined in the workplace, and receive no salary at all.

Labor agencies in Indonesia and Malaysia control most aspects of the migration and placement process with little oversight from either government, Human Rights Watch said. In Indonesia, labor agents often subject prospective workers to extortion, discriminatory hiring processes, and months-long confinement in overcrowded training centers. In Malaysia, labor agents turn a deaf ear to women’s complaints about abusive treatment and pleas to return home.

Human Rights Watch said that many employers hold their domestic worker’s salary until the end of the standard two-year contract. Many domestic workers are never paid their full salaries and have little chance for redress. "Indonesian women are leaving everything behind to make a living in Malaysia," added Jefferson. "They often go home without their rightful salaries while everyone else in the process makes money off them."

Indonesia and Malaysia are currently negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding on migrant domestic workers. Human Rights Watch welcomed the initiative, but warned that the agreement must ensure freedom of movement and association, include a standard contract that fully protects workers’ labor rights, and contain provisions for redress in cases of abuse.

Human Rights Watch urged the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to undertake a range of reforms. These include:

  • Improving legal protections by enacting legislation on the protection of migrant workers, and by amending existing employment and immigration laws to provide equal protection to domestic workers;
  • Regulating and monitoring rigorously the practices of labor agencies and conditions in training centers in Indonesia;
  • Inspecting workplace conditions in Malaysia and creating accessible complaint mechanisms for migrant domestic workers who suffer abuse;
  • Providing resources for improving domestic workers’ access to health care, legal aid, and other support services; and
  • Improving efforts to prevent and respond to trafficking into forced labor. Human Rights Watch also urged international donors and ASEAN to support initiatives like multilateral labor agreements to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers.

Select testimonies of domestic workers and labor agents featured in the report:

(Pseudonyms for women workers are used to protect privacy and to prevent retaliation)

Nyatun Wulandari, age twenty-three, said, “I worked for five people, the children were grown up. I cleaned the house, the kitchen, washed the floor, ironed, vacuumed, and cleaned the car. I worked from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. everyday. I never had a break; I was just stealing time to get a break. I was paid just one time, 200 ringgit [U.S.$52.63]. I slept in the kitchen on a mat. I was not allowed outside of the house.

Jumilah Ratnasari, age thirty-two, said, “There were almost seven hundred people [in the training center]. Some of them became crazy. They were all women…. Some people were waiting there for six months. Most of them wanted to leave the company, but would have to pay one million rupiah [U.S.$122] to do so. A lot of people ran away by climbing the walls. We were not allowed outside. There were many security [guards]—strict—and locked gates…. The security [guards] would get punished when people ran away, they would call agents in Lombok to see if the runaways returned home.

Arianti Harikusoumo, age twenty-seven, said, “If I asked for my salary, the employer hit me. I never got my salary, the employer didn’t give me money. The employer never gave even one ringgit. If my employers went out, they locked the door from the outside and took the key. My employer told me not to speak to the neighbors. She didn’t allow me to use the phone or write letters. I asked my employer to write a letter to my family and she didn’t give me permission.

Susanti Pramono, age twenty, said, “When the lady went to drop off the children to the grandmother’s house, the man would stay at home…. He raped me many, many times. Once a day, every day for three months. He hit me a lot because I didn’t want to have sex.”