Fri, 18 Aug 2000

Household workers

It is a cause for hope when a leading national newspaper devotes its editorial space to the needs of the disenfranchised. The Jakarta Post's Aug. 12 editorial spoke out on behalf of Indonesia's lowest level of female household workers, our pembantus. These workers are the Ministry of Manpower's forgotten constituents. They are not protected by minimum wage laws or child labor laws; for the sake of foreign exchange they are sent overseas to work like the African slaves of centuries ago. They are exploited by Ministry of Manpower officials who control their employment status, by immigration officials who issue their travel documents, and by licensed employment agents who exploit them in multiple ways -- before they even reach a work location, where they are often treated little better than a piece of household equipment (some pets receive more attention from employers).

The editorial was correct to broaden the focus to include domestic pembantus, not only those sent to work in other countries. Some pembantus are well paid and treated with respect. But many are required to work twelve or more hours a day (with rest times that are set at the convenience of the employer, not the needs of the worker), in some households seven days a week (with one day a month free), with disgracefully low wages. Some are physically disciplined at the whim of the employer, some are expected to submit sexually to their employer. Yet many pembantus will never complain about their situations, either from fear of losing needed income, or fear of shaming their families by complaining about their "benefactors", or from a misbegotten loyalty-similar to that displayed by hostages toward their captors. Perhaps some spirited pembantu will soon rise up to become the champion of her colleagues across Indonesia. Maybe as an encouragement we who employ pembantus ought to form informal pacts among ourselves, pledging to meet certain minimal standards relating to wage, work hours, medical care and holiday standards. By undertaking an initiative like this, groups like the Darma Wanita, the American Women's Association, British Women's Association, and Women's International, could be effective forces for improving the conditions of our working sisters.


Medan, North Sumatra