Indonesia says it won’t be sending its women abroad to work as housekeepers and maids in wealthier countries anymore. President Joko Widodo has tasked the country’s ministry of manpower to come up with a roadmap to repatriate the largely female workers that go abroad every year to cook, clean, and look after richer families’ children.
“This is a matter of dignity,” he said in a speech over the weekend. “We should have pride and dignity.”
The flow of domestic workers to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and beyond—Asia’s so-called “maid trade“—has become an increasingly fraught source of diplomatic tension as their numbers increase and abuses by families in receiving countries have come to light. Earlier this month, a 44-year-old woman in Hong Kong was convicted of 18 charges of abusing her helpers, including shoving a vacuum cleaner tube down a woman’s mouth and threatening to kill her family. According to an Amnesty report in 2013, two-thirds of domestic workers interviewed said they had been physically or psychologically abused.
But it’s not clear that simply banning domestic workers from working abroad will work, and it may even backfire.
The government’s plan is to require those going abroad to have vocational training so they would be hired as semi-skilled workers rather than working informally as a family’s catchall helper. But this may just mean fewer jobs for those who can’t afford the training. And although Indonesia’s unemployment rate fell to around 5.7% last year from 9% in 2007, there are still not enough employment opportunities for those with little education or formal training.
Instead, the number of those finding work abroad through illegal channels would likely grow, with less government oversight and more potential for abuses. According to official statistics, about 400,000 Indonesians migrate abroad every year for work, but estimates that include illegal migrants put that figure closer to one million.
The real problem, according to advocates for domestic workers, is that the government ministries charged with protecting migrant workers aren’t doing enough. Weak oversight of recruiting and placement agencies has resulted in steep fees that workers spend months paying off. (The International Labor Organization estimates that for every licensed placement agent in Indonesia there are two operating without a government-approved license.)
Women en route to jobs abroad are already subject to mandatory pre-departure training sessions. But instead of educating these women on their rights abroad, the operators of the training center have abused and exploited them instead.