Indonesian domestic workers and activists advocating for their rights began a hunger strike yesterday to protest against the parliament’s delay in passing a bill to protect domestic workers.
As The Associated Press reported yesterday, about 40 activists from the Domestic Workers Alliance sat under tents outside the compound of the parliament in the capital Jakarta. According to the report, “they held clocks, baby pacifiers, napkins and other cleaning equipment, as well as chains they said symbolized the challenges that domestic servants face in Indonesia.”
It reported that “sunrise-to-sunset fasting protests” would be held simultaneously in Jakarta and other major cities and “will be held every day until the bill is passed.”
The Domestic Worker Protection Bill was first proposed in 2004 to protect the country’s estimated 4.2 million domestic workers – a vital though often underrecognized part of the country’s economy. Since then, however, the bill has remained in legislative limbo, shuffled on and off the parliament’s agenda without getting close to passage.
In January, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo publicly endorsed the bill in a bid to speed it toward passage, in the hope that it would be passed by the time his second term comes to an end in February 2024. (The passage of the law was among Jokowi’s campaign promises during his first run for the presidency in 2014). Parliament then opened discussions about the bill in late March but has seemingly done little since to move the bill toward passage.
“The hunger strike reflects the situation of many domestic workers in this country who don’t have protection from the government,” Lita Anggraini of the National Advocacy Network for Domestic Workers told the AP. “We call on lawmakers to immediately pass the domestic worker protection bill into law. The more delays, the more workers who will experience violence and discrimination.”
According to the International Labor Organization and the University of Indonesia, Indonesia has the world’s largest population of domestic workers in the world, ahead of India (3.8 million) and the Philippines (2.6 million). But given the often informal arrangements of domestic employment, the actual number of people working in the sector is likely much higher.
Yet few of these workers enjoy privileges such as health and life insurance, standard working hours, and a working-age limit. Indeed, in some parts of rural Indonesia, domestic work is inseparable from local customs in which wealthy families take care of poorer relatives’ children, in return for the latter performing household chores. Indeed, part of the reason for the swift passage of the law is the resistance among some lawmakers, who are concerned that it will criminalize these traditional arrangements, which they claim have offered a path to social mobility for poor rural families.
The lack of protections, and the context of much domestic work, which takes place in private homes away from the scrutiny of the public, leaves workers open to sometimes horrific abuse. It has also incentivized hundreds of thousands of mostly women to travel abroad – particularly to Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan – where they can earn more and enjoy better, if still often insufficient, social protections.
The Bill gives household employees – three-quarters of whom are women – more of the rights afforded to formal workers. According to the South China Morning Post, it requires employers and agents to uphold promised wages and working hours, and punishes physical assault with up to eight years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 125 million rupiah (around $8,141). It also recognizes domestic helpers’ right to training, health insurance, and social security.