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I.  Summary

The agent came to my house and promised me a job in a house in Malaysia… He promised to send me to Malaysia in one month, but [kept me locked in] the labor recruiter’s office for six months….   I think one or two hundred people were there.  The gate was locked.  I wanted to go back home.  There were two or four guards, they carried big sticks.  They would just yell.  They would sexually harass the women.
—Interview with Fatma Haryono, age thirty, returned domestic worker, Lombok, Indonesia, January 24, 2004

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. every day.  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 just ate bread, there was no rice [for me].  I was hungry.  I slept in the kitchen on a mat.  I was not allowed outside of the house.
─Interview with Nyatun Wulandari, age twenty-three, returned domestic worker, Lombok, Indonesia, January 25, 2004

In May 2004, graphic photographs of the bruised and burned body of Nirmala Bonat, a young Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia, were splashed across newspapers in Southeast Asia.  In a case that drew international attention and outrage as well as a prompt response by both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, Bonat accused her employer of brutally beating and abusing her.

Many Indonesian domestic workers confront the risk of exploitation and abuse at every stage of the migration cycle, including recruitment, training, transit, employment, and return.  Unlike Bonat, these women and girls have little opportunity for redress and their abuse is hidden from public scrutiny.  Labor agencies in Indonesia and Malaysia control most aspects of the migration process with virtually no oversight from either government.

This report provides a comprehensive account of the conditions faced by migrant domestic workers, detailing their experiences from initial recruitment in their villages in Indonesia to their return home from Malaysia years later.  Based on over one hundred firsthand accounts, it illustrates the endemic and often severe abuses that Indonesian domestic workers experience.

In Indonesia, prospective migrant workers secure employment in Malaysia through both licensed and unlicensed labor agents who often extort money, falsify travel documents, and mislead women and girls about their work arrangements.  In both Indonesian training centers and in Malaysian workplaces, women migrant domestic workers often suffer severe restrictions on their freedom of movement; psychological and physical abuse, including sexual abuse; and prohibitions on practicing their religion.  Pervasive labor rights abuses in the workplace include extremely long hours of work without overtime pay, no rest days, and incomplete and irregular payment of wages.  In some cases, deceived about the conditions and type of work, confined at the workplace, and receiving no salary at all, women are caught in situations of trafficking and forced labor. 

Indonesia and Malaysia have failed to protect Indonesian domestic workers and have excluded them from standard protections guaranteed to other workers.  Indonesia lacks an adequate system for monitoring labor recruitment agencies or training centers.  Malaysia’s employment laws do not extend equal protection to domestic workers, leaving their work hours, payment of overtime wages, rest days, and compensation for workplace injuries unregulated.  The Malaysian government leaves the resolution of most workplace abuse cases to profit-motivated labor suppliers, who are often accused of committing abuses themselves. 

In May 2004, the two countries announced they would negotiate a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia. This is an important commitment and this report provides suggestions on the terms that any such MoU should include. Such a bilateral agreement, however, can address only a portion of the measures that the two governments must undertake if they are to provide meaningful protection to migrant domestic workers.  Each government must also review and amend domestic employment and immigration laws, provide resources for support services, create policies and monitoring mechanisms to regulate the practices of labor agents and employers, and train government officials and law enforcement bodies to enforce these protections.

There are approximately 240,000 domestic workers in Malaysia, and over 90 percent of them are Indonesian.  Due to the hidden nature of work in private households, the lack of legal protections, the limited number of support services and organizations, and the control exerted over domestic workers’ movements in Malaysia, only a small proportion of abused domestic workers are able to register complaints or seek help.  Close to eighteen thousand domestic workers escaped or ran away from their Malaysian employers in 2003, which both government authorities and NGOs attribute in large part to abusive employment practices.

Indonesian women seeking employment in Malaysia encounter unscrupulous labor agents, discriminatory hiring processes, and months-long confinement in overcrowded training centers before they ever reach Malaysia.  In order to pay recruitment and processing fees, they either take large loans requiring repayment at extremely high interest rates or the first four or five months of their salary is held as payment.  Labor recruiters often fail to provide complete information about job responsibilities, work conditions, or where the women can turn for help.  Women expecting to spend one month in pre-departure training facilities in Indonesia are often trapped in heavily-guarded centers for three to six months without any income.  Some migrant domestic workers are girls whose labor agents altered their ages on their travel documents. 

Indonesian domestic workers employed in Malaysia typically work sixteen to eighteen hour days, seven days a week, without any holidays.  Most have no significant time to rest during the day.  Those who care for children in addition to their cleaning responsibilities report being “on call” around the clock.  An Indonesian domestic worker typically earns 350-400 ringgit (U.S.$92-105) per month, half the amount a Filipina domestic worker earns.  Given that most work at least fifteen hours a day, every day of the month, this amounts to less than one ringgit (U.S.$0.25) per hour.  Employers often give their domestic workers their wages in one lump sum only upon completion of the standard two-year contract; many fail to make complete payments or to pay at all.

Indonesian domestic workers confront numerous legal and practical obstacles that impede their ability to leave abusive situations or to seek redress.  Employers and labor agents routinely hold workers’ passports.  Malaysian immigration policies tie domestic workers’ employment visas to their employer, often trapping them in exploitative situations, as escaping means they lose their legal immigration status.  Police and immigration authorities summarily detain and deport workers caught without valid work permits, often without identifying cases of abuse or trafficking.  Furthermore, the employers of most domestic workers interviewed for this report forbade them to leave the house, use the phone, or write letters.  This isolation meant that many did not have access to information, support services, or individuals who could help them.  Domestic workers who break their two-year contract early must pay for their own return travel to Indonesia.  Because employers routinely withhold their salaries, many women workers are unable to pay this fare.  They either complete their contracts while enduring abusive working conditions or risk working without legal status to earn money for their trip home.

Around the world, female work in the private sphere is typically not valued as an economic activity nor acknowledged as work requiring public regulation and protection.  The situation of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia reflects this global bias.  Indonesian migrant domestic workers currently have little protection under national laws and bilateral labor agreements.  Although, as noted, Indonesia and Malaysia are negotiating an MoU on domestic workers, they previously excluded such workers from a major MoU on migrant workers signed on May 10, 2004.  Malaysia’s national employment laws also exclude domestic workers from protections provided to other workers.  In Indonesia, the Indonesian parliament, a consortium of migrants’ rights groups called KOPBUMI, and the University of Brawijaya based in Malang, East Java, have drafted three different versions of a new piece of legislation to protect overseas workers.  Before a migrant workers’ bill can be debated by Parliament, the Indonesian president must assign a ministry to take the lead on the legislation.  At this writing, the president had not acted and the timeline and eventual enactment of a migrant workers’ law remained uncertain. 

Malaysia and Indonesia are failing to uphold their international human rights obligations under a variety of treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  Both Malaysia and Indonesia have ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on forced labor (Convention 29), protection of wages (Convention 95), and the worst forms of child labor (Convention 182).  They should also ratify and enforce important international treaties on human rights and migrants’ rights including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the  International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention), and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking Protocol). 

This report is based on 115 in-depth interviews conducted in Indonesia and Malaysia in January and February 2004, as well as several months of background research.  Human Rights Watch interviewed fifty-one Indonesian women currently working as domestic workers in Malaysia or who had left their employment in the previous twelve months.  We also conducted sixteen interviews with Indonesian and Malaysian government officials.  In Indonesia, these included officials from the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment, and the National Commission on Violence against Women.   In Malaysia, these included officials from the Immigration Department, the Ministry of Human Resources, the National Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), and the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  We conducted twenty-seven interviews with NGOs, lawyers, and United Nations agencies, and an additional thirteen interviews with Malaysian employers and labor agencies in Indonesia and Malaysia.

All names and identifying information of migrant workers we interviewed have been changed to protect their privacy and to prevent retaliation.  In conformity with the CRC, this report uses “child” to refer to anyone under the age of eighteen. 

Key Recommendations

The employer should not treat Indonesians badly, because we’re still human.  We have a heart and feelings.  They should respect us too.  They should not treat us badly.  For all the mistakes [for which] we get hit, we are human.
—Interview with Riena Sarinem, age thirty, domestic worker, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 25, 2004

This report documents the routine abuse that women migrant domestic workers confront both during recruitment and training in Indonesia and in the workplace in Malaysia.  Labor agencies control the migration process in both countries with little oversight from either government.  Migrant domestic workers suffering forced confinement, physical violence, and unpaid wages have little hope for redress.  Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia has legislation protecting the rights of migrant workers, and Malaysia’s employment laws deny domestic workers the basic protections assured to other workers.

The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia should act decisively and quickly to respect fully the rights and dignity of Indonesian migrant domestic workers.  Our central recommendations are listed below, and a full set of more detailed recommendations, addressed to both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments as well as to actors in the international community, may be found at the end of this report. 

  • Indonesia and Malaysia should actively protect and monitor the treatment of women migrant workers instead of abdicating these responsibilities to labor agents.  This requires guidelines for labor agencies, more careful oversight of the work of such agencies, and enforcement mechanisms that include imposition of substantial penalties on agents who abuse workers or otherwise violate the guidelines.
  • Malaysia should amend its employment and immigration laws to provide migrant domestic workers full protection under the law.  Malaysia should amend its laws to facilitate civil lawsuits and the prosecution of criminal cases against abusive employers and to better respond to the needs of victims of abuse or trafficking. 
  • Indonesia should enact legislation on the protection of migrant workers.  The government should better regulate and monitor recruitment practices and pre-departure training centers.  The government should provide a range of services for returning migrants who have suffered abuse, including health care, legal aid, counseling, and reintegration programs. 
  • Indonesia and Malaysia should commit to negotiating a bilateral agreement on domestic workers that contains a standard contract with provisions on their hours of work, rest days, and pay; systems for monitoring training centers and places of employment; and plans on cooperation to provide services to survivors of abuse.  This agreement should also protect domestic workers’ rights to freedom of movement and freedom of association.

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