Do Indonesian maids really lie as a matter of course?

Asian Domestic Worker Model‘If you have an Indonesian maid, be very strict with her. Indonesian maids lie! They lie as a matter of course!’

I was quietly shocked by this outburst, uttered by a fellow guest at a friend’s dinner party in Singapore. Only hours earlier, I read in the local newspaper about an Indonesian domestic helper plunging to her death from a tenth floor apartment where she had been employed.

In Indonesia, news items tend to allocate bad faith, bad intentions, and bad behaviour to the employer, then the recruitment agencies, and also to the government officials in the related bodies, the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, and the Ministry for Immigration. The domestic helpers themselves have been invariably depicted as victims, and as largely blameless, even in cases where they have been perpetrators of crimes. It is fairly representative of the fact.

Kuwait PosterIn their country of origin – Indonesia - domestic workers are portrayed as puerile characters, easily manipulated, and hence needing to be given help and ‘guidance’. In their countries of destination, they were depicted as quasi-human characters bereft of any sense of ethics or morality, who would cheat, steal, seduce their male employers, and even harm the employer’s family without any compunction.

Consciously I began to encourage acquaintances in Singapore and Hong Kong to describe their experiences of employing foreign domestic helpers, especially those from Indonesia. With research funding from the International Labour Organisation, who appointed me as their external collaborator to the Domestic Worker Program in the Jakarta office, I visited Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. There I spoke to a number of domestic helpers, employers, operators of the placement agencies, and the local Indonesian diplomatic mission. I also observed the attitudes of the community in general toward the issue.

In Indonesia I spoke informally to returned domestic helpers. With the help of the largest association of agencies that recruited migrant workers, I was able to visit some major training centres. Then in Jakarta I interviewed the relevant department head of the Ministry for Manpower and Transmigration.

Migrant WorkersFrom the beginning of my research, I experienced a steep learning curve. The returned helpers I interviewed told of working experiences in which they were initially overwhelmed by the urgent need to readjust their expectations, and to accommodate their pace of work to the demand. Some were more successful than others. None I interviewed had been physically abused or explicitly mistreated. But when they told of the things that had made them unhappy, fearful or physically uncomfortable, they revealed aspects of their lives which made me again and again dig deep into my memory.

One interviewee related an experience that occurred when she accompanied her employer family on an overseas holiday. ‘Halfway through the flight we stopped somewhere, the passengers left the aircraft. But my employers told me to stay in it. It was hot and stuffy. I didn’t know what was happening, so I was scared.’

There has been much social development affecting human resource training which, in theory at least, also includes domestic work. But the social perception of domestic helpers has not shifted very far. In society’s collective psyche they are still seen to occupy the bottom rung of unskilled work. So there is very little official supervision or monitoring of their training, if they undergo training at all. This is reflected in their low pay – approximately A$50 per month.

ILO JakartaThe majority of the women who seek domestic work overseas are lured by the promise of higher salaries. The going rate in Malaysia is A$160, in Singapore A$195, in Hong Kong A$560, per month. Many of those who go to Hong Kong are fairly well educated. They may choose to be domestic helpers there because it would be very difficult for them to find better paid employment in Indonesia. Perhaps too they subconsciously believe that when they go to Hong Kong - the most geographically and culturally distant of the three nations - they will not have to contend with the social prejudice faced by domestic helpers at home. Unfortunately even though they enjoy legal protection under Hong Kong law that recognises them as formal workers, they still face similar prejudices.

In cases where abuse occurs it is fair to presume that employers expect impunity. They rely on the prevalent social prejudice. Its strength overrides the fear of legal repercussion. In other words, the abusive employer believes that the domestic helper is too scared and too clueless to do anything, and that the community is too indifferent to become involved, since the victim is ‘only a maid’.



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