By Ratih Kabinawa and Pamungkas A. Dewanto

Last Wednesday, after almost 20 years languishing in the legislature, the Domestic Worker Protection Bill was publicly endorsed by Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in an effort to accelerate its enactment. In a statement to media, Jokowi also announced the creation of a taskforce to oversee the adoption of the bill.

With the promulgation of the act, the Indonesian government aims to recognize domestic work as equal to other professions, particularly in regard to legal protections. An estimated 4.5 million Indonesians are employed as domestic workers, yet few enjoy privileges such as health and life insurance, standard working hours, and a working-age limit.

Due to the informal nature of domestic employment, the actual number of people working in the sector is likely much higher than official statistics suggest. In rural settings, many people still regard domestic labor – or servitude – as separate from employment. It is still largely understood as a form of loyalty to “patrons” or “superiors.”

If adopted, the Domestic Worker Protection Bill will be a progressive move by the government to show not only its commitment to deconstructing the rationale of servitude, but also to improving the social protection of domestic workers. In the absence of such legislation, thousands of Indonesians seek their fortune overseas as domestic workers, hoping to earn a better income under better social protection schemes than their home can offer.

The question is whether these workers have been better off in the destination countries.

The World Bank estimates that around 7% of migrant workers in Malaysia are domestic workers. Yet the Malaysian government and the migrant-sending countries have not settled on social protection arrangements for foreign domestic workers. Until 2021, domestic workers were not even considered “workers” in Malaysia. Work permits for foreign domestic workers (PLKS) simply confirmed an immigrant category, which further discriminated against domestic workers.


Photo Credit: Getty Images

Members of a migrant worker group gathered at a carnival in in East Java, Indonesia. According to the International Labour Organization, Indonesia is one of the largest countries in terms of sending migrant workers abroad.

Yet after strong criticism from various advocacy groups about systematic discrimination against migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and media portrayals of the government’s negligence over social protections for migrant workers, Malaysia committed to a change of policy. Since June 2021, the Malaysian government has included domestic workers in their social security system (SOCSO), covering three provisions: the employment injury scheme, the invalidity scheme, and the employment insurance system.

While the inclusion of domestic workers in SOCSO is innovative, there are doubts about the implementation. First, the social insurance system for domestic workers is designed to follow immigration categorization, situating foreign domestic workers under a temporary visa (FDW) as the least privileged members. Those with FDW status are only entitled to the employment injury scheme, which covers only occupational injuries and diseases. Second, the claim process is strictly subject to the employment activities as stated in the work permit. Yet because domestic workers live in isolation and engage in so-called reproductive activities – caring, cleaning, cooking, etc – at their employer’s house, it is often hard for them to refuse jobs unrelated to the tasks stipulated under their work permit.

Similar conditions apply in Taiwan. Each year, the country hires thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries, with Indonesia the dominant contributor in the domestic sectors. Most are female workers taking care of household chores and elderly family members. As of November 2022, almost 164,000 Indonesians were employed as domestic workers in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Labor Standards Act discriminates against domestic workers through its regulation of working hours, minimum wage, legal protections, and social welfare coverage. Migrant domestic workers earn lower salaries than those in the formal sectors covered by the act, and they are not entitled to labour insurance. Currently, the minimum wage for newly recruited migrant domestic workers is NT$20,000 (US$662) per month, while other workers receive NT$26,400 (US$873) in line with Taiwan’s national minimum wage.

However, in all countries, the most fundamental form of discrimination lies in the asymmetric relationship between employers and laborers. Living and working in an employer’s house ultimately leads to unbalanced work-power relations, especially when employees are bargaining for benefits and rights, such as the equal access to day-leave as workers in the formal sector.

The enactment plan for Indonesia’s Domestic Worker Protection Bill should provide momentum for the country’s government to urge its counterparts, especially the migrant-receiving countries, to adopt similar legislation. For Malaysia, the strong relationship between the Indonesian embassy and various migrant associations should result in a robust coalition pushing for a more inclusive SOCSO. In Taiwan, migrant workers regularly join rallies organized by a coalition of local labour activists and migrant labor organizations to include domestic workers and caregivers in the Taiwan Labor Standards Act.

Indonesia’s call to enact the bill will provide moral support to these migrant domestic workers as well as send a strong political message to migrant-receiving countries such as Malaysia and Taiwan to pursue a similar policy. Universal labour standards, regardless of nationalities and sectors, should become the working concept for the formulation of any memorandum of understanding that Indonesia signs with its migrant-receiving counterparts.

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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