Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, recently told his government to create a roadmap for ending migration of Indonesian women abroad for domestic work.
His comments come in the wake of last week’s conviction by a Hong Kong court of a Hong Kong employer for beating, starving, and failing to pay Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker.
President Widodo said his proposed ban would protect Indonesia’s “dignity.”
Millions of Indonesian women work abroad cooking, cleaning and raising children for families across Asia and the Middle East. While migrant domestic work is a critical source of income sustaining many households back in Indonesia, horrific accounts of mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of employers or recruiters are routine.
For more than 10 years Human Rights Watch has documented abuse against Indonesian domestic workers, finding patterns of unpaid wages, excessive working hours, denial of food, forced confinement in the workplace, and forced labor in countries such as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Widodo’s instinct to address this endemic abuse by banning migration may be well-intentioned, but it’s harmful and counterproductive. It discriminates against Indonesian women and restricts their rights instead of protecting them.
Furthermore, such bans don’t work. Indonesia, along with other countries that send domestic workers abroad, such as the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia, have repeatedly imposed bans on migrant domestic work to little effect. Many women, desperate for jobs, migrate anyway, but under more dangerous conditions, putting them at heightened risk of trafficking and other forms of abuse. And Indonesian women at home trying to support their families have a key survival strategy taken away.
The Indonesian government should invest in expanding vocational training and decent work opportunities at home so women can migrate out of choice and not desperation. It should also strengthen the ways it protects women who choose to migrate so they can do so safely. It should also ratify the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention, designed to protect domestic workers both at home and abroad.
Reforms in countries employing domestic workers are often slow and incremental. But by working together with other home countries of migrant domestic workers, Indonesia can push countries of employment to make and enforce needed reforms linked to labor laws, immigration policies, recruitment, and access to redress.