Indonesia: Domestic workers fight for their rights during COVID-19

Yuni Sri Rahayu, 38, was working at two different homes in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta when COVID-19 hit. Commuting through the city’s smoggy and overflowing streets by motorbike, Yuni usually cleans apartments, washes clothes, and cooks meals for up to ten hours a day.

But the pandemic has dramatically changed Yuni’s situation. One employer asked her to stop coming in from mid-April; the other has kept her on but the apartment building management only allows domestic workers to come in three times a week during the pandemic, so Yuni’s wage has been cut in half.

Yuni is a single mother and now must support her four children on a reduced income of just IDR 1.5 million (US$100) instead of her previous IDR 4.3 million (US$290).

“My husband left me six years ago,” Yuni explains. They reunited briefly and she fell pregnant three years ago, but her husband soon left again. “He doesn’t give us any money. I can’t even afford to get divorced right now,” she says, laughing.

Jala PRT members at the Women’s March in Jakarta in 2018. Photo by Kate Walton.

Not having received any government assistance, Yuni has now turned to selling frozen food and handbags through an online marketplace to try to cover her family’s daily needs. Profit margins are slim – she makes just IDR 5,000 (US$0.35) per bag.

“Thank God, I’m making enough to buy food, but I’m really worried how I’ll pay rent or motorbike repayments,” Yuni says. Her oldest son uses their motorbike to work as a motorbike taxi driver, but Jakarta’s large-scale social lockdown has put an end to orders, with all motorbike taxis forbidden from operating. 

“There’s definitely no money to put away as savings,” Yuni concludes.

Since the pandemic reached Indonesia in February, Jala PRT, the country’s National Advocacy Network for Domestic Workers, has been swamped with pleas for legal and financial help as women suddenly find themselves without work.

“Every day, we’re getting complaints from domestic workers who are being told to stay home [without pay], or who are being laid off for reasons like being an hour late to work, even though they weren’t,” Sayem, one of Jala PRT’s coordinators, said in a recent phone interview. 

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest country with over 270 million citizens, COVID-19 has largely only exacerbated pre-existing economic inequality. Unlike middle-class office workers, members of Indonesia’s working class have either seen their workplaces closed or have been forced to continue working in dangerous conditions.

Domestic workers are among the worst-affected groups. There are at least 4.2 million domestic workers across the archipelago, and the vast majority work long hours for little pay. Most hail from small towns or villages and migrate to large cities to find work, often from when they are just teenagers. Many have no idea of their rights and are too scared to demand proper working conditions for fear of not getting a job; after all, there are millions of other domestic workers out there, all competing for work. 

Domestic workers (pekerja rumah tangga) is the term preferred by the women themselves. It places emphasis on their status as workers rather than just helpers, and tries to shift the thinking behind the most common Indonesian term for them: pembantu (helper). While many employers claim that they treat their domestic workers ‘like family’, this is unfortunately often not the case.

A survey of 668 domestic workers conducted by Jala PRT in 2018 found that 98.2 percent of respondents earned between just 20 and 30 percent of the regional minimum wage. Only 42 percent had government-paid national health insurance, despite the law requiring government contributions for low-income citizens.

Feri Yuniati worked for her boss for six years before suddenly being laid off without severance pay in March this year.

“I worked from 6.30am until 8pm or 9pm every day except Sunday,” Feri says. “On 21 March, my boss said they didn’t want me to come in anymore because of COVID-19. They didn’t explain what would happen with my wage, severance, or THR [annual holiday bonus].”

Feri found a new job a few days later, but was shocked when her new boss contacted her old boss via Instagram. 

“My old boss then messaged me saying that they would only pay me for eight working days in March,” she explains. “I asked about severance and THR. They said they wouldn’t pay it because they didn’t fire me; they claim I was the one who left!”

Feri’s former employer then blocked her on WhatsApp and Instagram. Shocked, she turned to Jala PRT for help; paralegal volunteers are now working on mediation.

“I worked for them for six years,” Feri says sadly. “I want to warn them that it is not okay to treat domestic workers like this. I have a right to THR and severance pay.”

Unfortunately, Feri is in a complicated situation. She is correct that, generally speaking, workers have a legal right to annual holiday bonus and severance pay. The problem is that domestic workers are not acknowledged as workers by Indonesian law, and because most do not have work contracts with their employers, there is not much that can be done if they are mistreated, underpaid, or fired without reason. 

A draft law for domestic workers’ protection has been stuck in parliament for over 15 years with little progress; perhaps not surprising when most parliamentarians themselves employ domestic workers and are not pleased at the prospect of having to pay them more.

“I only started working [for my last employer] 10 days before the large-scale social lockdown began,” says Rustinah, 43, a domestic worker from South Jakarta. “My boss gave me IDR 500,000 (US$34) and said they’d contact me when everything was normal again.”

Rustinah hasn’t heard from them since and is worried how she, her husband – who was also let go from his job as a mall security guard – and their three children will survive. Her children – aged 17, 11, and 8 – have been at home since Jakarta’s schools were closed in mid-March. They’re supposed to be studying online, but as Rustinah explains, “We don’t have enough smartphones or money to buy data packets for them all.”

Rustinah has received one food package of rice, oil, and tinned sardines from the government, and three lots of assistance from Jala PRT. She says she is one of the fortunate ones: not only has she received external help, she also has six siblings, so there is always someone to lend her some money or food if she’s desperate.

While many have been laid off, other domestic workers were told by their employers that they would now need to ‘live in’ to ensure they did not contract COVID-19 and bring it into their boss’ homes. Workers were no longer permitted to travel to and from their own places of residence, and workloads suddenly doubled or even tripled; with whole families now working from home, the amount of cleaning, cooking, and childcare has exploded.

“One domestic worker friend I know is still working,” Rustinah says. “She’s heavily pregnant but her boss doesn’t seem to care. Her employers just want their house cleaned; they stay in their bedroom while she’s cleaning.”

Rustinah muses that her friend is probably lucky to still have work, even though she’s risking her and her unborn baby’s health by going to and from her employers’ house. 

“In my neighbourhood, we’re all basically in the same position. Everyone’s struggling,” Rustinah explains. “So many of us are looking for work but there’s only a few jobs available.”

Rustinah says she’s looking forward to when the large-scale social lockdown ends so that she and other members of Jala PRT can get back to advocating for recognition of domestic workers’ rights.

“All we can do right now is advocate on social media,” she says, a smile in her voice. Jala PRT and its sub-groups have dozens of active WhatsApp chat groups for members, and the organization is working to improve its presence on Twitter. “We need to get out onto the streets again… as well as get back to work. Our economy is dying.”

Single mother Yuni agrees. “I don’t want people’s pity or loans,” she says carefully. “I just want to work and earn my own money.”

Author bio:

Kate Walton is a writer and advocate for women’s rights.