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Indonesia: Protect Child Domestic Workers

Government Should Stop Ignoring or Denying Exploitation


The Indonesian government is failing to protect children working as domestic workers from abuse and exploitation, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report. The report calls on the Indonesian government to grant fundamental labor rights to domestic workers and to strictly enforce the existing minimum age requirement of 15 for full-time employment for all workers.

The 73-page report, "Workers in the Shadows: Abuse and Exploitation of Child Domestic Workers in Indonesia," documents how hundreds of thousands of girls in Indonesia, some as young as 11, are employed as domestic workers in other people's households, performing tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and child care. Most girls interviewed for the report worked 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with no day off. Almost all are grossly underpaid, and some get no salary at all. In the worst cases, girls reported being physically, psychologically, and sexually abused.

"Indonesia's child domestic workers work longer and harder than many adults, but the government excludes them from laws that protect the rest of the workforce," said Bede Sheppard, Asia researcher in the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

Those considered formal workers in Indonesia are entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, an eight-hour workday and 40-hour work week, a weekly day of rest, and vacation. Domestic workers are not. This omission also has a discriminatory impact on women and girls, who constitute the vast majority of domestic workers, Human Rights Watch said.

"Employers often recruit a child rather than an adult in order to get someone who will work for less, who will complain less, who is easier to order around, and who has fewer social connections," said Sheppard. "Since these are the same factors that make a worker more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, these girls need extra protections, like guarantees of decent food and housing, and prompt police response when there's a problem."

The report was released in advance of Indonesia's national Domestic Workers' Day, on February 15.

"Indonesian law is also very clear that children under 15 should be in school, not working full time. The government should identify underage girls doing domestic work and prioritize them for help in returning to school," said Sheppard.

Human Rights Watch noted that the Indonesian government has often expressed outrage about the treatment of Indonesian domestic workers abroad and urged the government to establish the standards at home that it demands from others.

According to a survey conducted by the University of Indonesia and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2002-2003, approximately 688,000 children under the age of 18 are domestic workers in Indonesia.

Human Rights Watch's report highlights how discriminatory or ill-informed views by government officials drive the widespread government reluctance to establish new policies to protect child domestic workers or enforce existing laws or services. Such attitudes are expressed routinely by officials from the Ministry of Manpower, the government body with lead responsibility for investigating labor exploitation of children and drafting legislation protecting domestic workers. One official from the Jakarta Manpower Agency quoted in the report explained that the agency simply never considered child domestic workers to be "real workers."

"There's a willful blindness on behalf of some government officials who choose to ignore or deny that child domestic workers are exploited and abused," said Sheppard. "For example, government officials throw up their hands and claim that it is impossible to monitor conditions within employers' private homes, yet they won't even adequately staff a national telephone hotline that children could use to report abuse and seek assistance."

Among the misconceptions addressed in the report are:

Myth: Child domestic workers are not workers, but merely "helpers."

Human Rights Watch research: Child domestic workers carry out activities that are taxing, productive, and deserving of being recognized as work. Indeed, long days of demanding labor can be such hard work that some children become physically ill. Labor rights bodies around the world recognize domestic work as an important segment of labor that should be regulated.

Myth: Employers treat child domestic workers "like family."

Human Rights Watch research: Employers frequently recruit children through commercial labor agencies or local vendors with personal connections with these children. In these cases, any kind of familial connection between employer and employee is lost. When the employer's primary concern is the maintenance of their household, not the employee's personal development, the relationship between employer and child is commercial.

Myth: Conditions of domestic work cannot be feasibly monitored or regulated.

Human Rights Watch research: Inspections and monitoring are not impossible to implement - rather, the government chooses not to make protection of child domestic workers a priority. Even basic telephone hotlines that children could use to report abuse and seek assistance are not adequately staffed. When Human Rights Watch called the most-advertised government-sponsored child hotline, it was answered only twice out of 23 attempts.

Some accounts included in the report:

"Every day my employer was angry and she would kick me and pinch me. Almost every day. When I mopped the floor, I did not use a mop for mopping, just my hands and a rag, and then my employer kicked me to go deeper under the bed. She would pinch me on my shoulders."

- "Ratu," 15 years old.

"I work from 4 a.m. until midnight. I am not allowed to rest."

- "Kemala," 16 years old.

"Some people view us as helpers and not workers. But we are workers. We have a fixed salary. I actually play a big role - without my work at the home during the day, people who live in the house would not be able to do so-called 'formal work' in their offices. And yet government people still say that we are second-class citizens!"

- "Dian," 16 years old.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.