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United They Work, Divided They Don’t

Jakarta Globe - July 18, 2011. 'The Indonesian government has long praised its migrant workers as “economic heroes” for their immense contributions to the economy in their home country.'

"But if the government wants to stop mistreatment of workers abroad, then a migration ban after repeated cases of abuse is not enough. Instead, the government needs to place the rights of women like Royati binti Sapubi — the 54-year-old domestic worker beheaded in Saudi Arabia last month for killing her employer — at the top of its agenda at home and pursue multilateral cooperation with other labor-sending countries to protect them abroad.

With the recent adoption of new global standards for domestic workers, labor-sending countries are in a better position to negotiate common minimum protections. As one of the largest labor-sending countries in Asia, Indonesia should help lead the way.

The new presidential task force to help migrant workers on death row abroad is a good step forward, but much more is needed. Since women go abroad for work largely because they do not have adequate job opportunities at home, Indonesia should strengthen female access to education, skill development and jobs.

Royati was not the only Indonesian to suffer injustice at the hands of the Saudi authorities. In another case that was supposed to show that the Saudi courts were serious about protecting domestic workers, the employer of Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa — a 23-year-old domestic worker hospitalized last year with severe burns — was sentenced to three years in prison. But in March, the sentence was overturned and the employer freed.

These patterns of abuse are not unique to the 1.5 million Indonesians working in Saudi Arabia, most of them as domestic workers. In the Middle East and Asia, domestic workers, regardless of their nationalities, are vulnerable to abuse. Most countries in the two regions leave domestic workers out of the standard protections in their labor laws. Domestic workers often describe endless workdays and delayed wages. Some experience physical and sexual abuse, forced labor and slavery-like conditions.

Migrant domestic workers should be entitled to protections such as limits to working hours, restrictions on salary deductions, and rest days. Given their poor bargaining power, the practice of informally mediating wage disputes means the worker often ends up with less money than is owed. Instead, workers should have better access to labor courts. And authorities should ensure workers’ safety by making it easier to report violence and ensuring swift investigations and support services.

The Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June by the International Labor Organization, codifies these protections and basic rights for domestic workers.

The convention obliges countries to set rules for work hours, overtime compensation, rest periods and benefits, including social security and maternity protection equivalent to those available to other workers. It requires governments to safeguard domestic workers from harassment and violence. The convention urges both sending and receiving countries to strengthen their international cooperation to protect migrant domestic workers’ rights.

Cooperation among labor-sending countries is crucial for improving oversight of migration and reducing risks for workers. A set of regional consultations of Asian labor-sending countries called the “Colombo Process” has been a platform for governments to exchange information. But eight years and four regional consultations later, the Colombo Process is yet to graduate from an information-sharing platform to a bloc that can develop a common bargaining position in negotiations with labor-receiving countries.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made a pitch for cooperation during the recent ILO conference. But in the aftermath of Royati’s execution, the government fell back on the sensitivities of bilateral politics, imposing a ban on sending workers to Saudi Arabia.

Experience shows that temporary freezes on migration and bilateral negotiations result more often in shifting migration patterns — with increased migration from countries that seek fewer protections for domestic workers — rather than securing better employment conditions.

After a string of abuse cases in Malaysia, Indonesia announced a similar freeze in 2009. Indonesia said it would lift the ban once Malaysia agreed on a revised memorandum of understanding with strong worker protections. Indonesian officials spent two years negotiating with Malaysia.

But Malaysian recruiters found an easier way out. They recruited women from Cambodia, whose government demanded fewer protections. Indonesia lifted its ban after winning few concessions and no guarantee of a minimum wage. Within days of the announcement a Malaysian employer killed an Indonesian domestic worker — an indication that little had changed.

Indonesia is not the only country whose attempts to protect its workers have been undercut by unhealthy competition. Earlier this year the Philippines scrutinized working conditions for its domestic workers in Saudi Arabia and considered a ban.

In response, Saudi officials stopped issuing work visas for Filipino domestic workers and announced a plan to recruit workers from Bangladesh, which made fewer demands. Instead of responding to the negative publicity and calls for accountability after Royati’s execution, Saudi Arabia announced it would no longer allow new hires of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers.

To break this trend of shifting recruitment patterns instead of improving working conditions, Indonesia should join with other Asian labor-sending countries to develop common minimum protections for domestic workers, including minimum wages, rest periods, dispute resolution processes and protection in case of abuse. The presidential task force mandate should be expanded to explore a joint response with other labor-sending countries.

The fate of women migrating for jobs will only improve when their countries stop competing for jobs and instead jointly defend and promote their workers’ rights. Indonesia’s “economic heroes” deserve nothing less. "


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