When I met 14-year-old Melati this July in Yogyakarta, she was looking for work. When her family could no longer afford the expense, Melati had been forced to drop out of school at age 12, unable to complete the nine years of education required by law. Wanting to support her widowed mother and younger brother, Melati left her village in east Java in the hope of earning money as a domestic worker in Yogyakarta. As she stared quietly and nervously at her hands, I worried about what life in Yogyakarta would bring for her.
There are plenty of reasons to worry. Human Rights Watch's research, ongoing since 2004, demonstrates that an alarming number of girls working as domestics in Indonesia, some as young as 11, face physical and sexual abuse as well as gross labor exploitation. Hidden in their employers' homes, isolated from their parents, and with no monitoring or protection by the government, these children are at their employers' mercy.
In response, the Yogyakarta city council is currently considering a new labor law that policymakers claim will improve the situation for both child workers and domestic workers. Unfortunately, the current draft law is appallingly weak. Crucially, the draft law - without any justification - denies domestic workers the minimum standards of employment that other workers enjoy, such as one day off a week, limits on working hours, and a minimum wage.
Employers would still be free to force domestic workers to labor around the clock, without rest, for a fraction of the wages earned by other workers. The draft law reflects a view that the work carried out by girls like Melati is invisible and valueless.
One member of the city council heavily involved in drafting the law told me that child domestic workers in Yogyakarta do not need legal protection, because, she said, "they are treated like family." But the experiences of many child domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Yogyakarta tell quite a different story:
Ria, who began working in Yogyakarta when she was 15, told us she worked 18 hours a day for her employer, seven days a week, with only one hour of rest per day. Working such long hours with no time for rest and recreation hurts a child's mental, physical, social, and intellectual development. Yet most of the girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch worked 14 to 18 hour days. That is more than twice as many hours a week as a factory or office worker in Yogyakarta can be required to work. The draft labor law fails to address this imbalance.
Hasana, who began working when she was 12, told us "I was very happy at first.... My employer kept promising me that he would send me to school, but he never did-he lied." Since Indonesian law requires children to complete nine years of school, the draft law is deficient in not providing any mechanism to verify that work does not interfere in the ability of children like Hasana to continue to go to school.
Furthermore, confining young girls to the homes of strangers is a recipe for exploitation, yet the draft law includes no provision to monitor employers' treatment of child domestic workers. Hasana went on to say: "I had no day off. Even though my parents were twenty kilometers away, I was not allowed to visit them. I felt like I was in jail. I was not allowed to go out. I had no friends. My family could not visit me. I felt hopeless." Atin, who began working at age 11, was also confined to the house of her employer. She told us: "I felt oppressed by my employer because I was forbidden from going out of the house to see my family or to meet friends. I was sad. I was constantly observed."
Not every child domestic worker suffers to the same degree, but strong laws are needed to protect those at risk of mistreatment. The motivation of an employer who recruits a child rather than an adult is often to find someone who will work for less, who will complain less, who is easier to order around and who has fewer social connections. These factors are also likely to make the domestic worker more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and less able to protect herself. As in factories and offices in Yogyakarta, many employees are treated well, but clear rules help prevent those employers who might mistreat their employees from doing so.
One very senior member of the Yogyakarta government told me that although he personally supported better protections for domestic workers, he felt that such regulations did not fit with the "public's values." Yet if most employers consider their domestic workers to be part of their family, why would they oppose guaranteeing them the minimum protections they themselves enjoy in their jobs in Yogyakarta's factories and offices?
Domestic workers should not have to rely solely on the generosity of their employers to ensure that their rights to education and decent work are respected. This month, when many young girls like Melati come to Yogyakarta after the holidays in search of work, city council members should be doing far more to protect their rights. Passing a law that simply admits to the truth- that domestic workers carry out activities that are both taxing and productive, and deserving of being recognized on an equal basis under the law as other forms of work -would be a welcome start.
The author is a researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch is an international human rights organization that works in over 70 countries around the world, and which also advocates for the rights of Indonesian migrant domestic workers working in Malaysia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 200 people in Indonesia on the issue of child domestic workers, including 80 current or former child domestic workers ages 11 and older. In order to protect their identities, all of the names of children are pseudonyms.
Bede Sheppard is a researcher in the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.