Child Domestic Workers in Legal Limbo

JAKARTA ~ Working long hours for little or no pay, young Indonesian women Umi and Mimin were once among hundreds of thousands of child domestic workers who activists say are being failed by the Jakarta government.

Now adults, the pair were part of an informal shadow industry that employs roughly 690,000 domestic workers under the age of 18 whose plight is being ignored by a “willfully blind” government, Human Rights Watch says in a report.

Working as cooks, maids and nannies in homes across Indonesia, such children often have to endure long hours, back-breaking work, abuse and even rape at the hands of employers, activists say.

Rights groups are pushing Indonesia to overhaul its labor laws to include such child workers, who are currently seen as “helpers” and as such are not covered by the legal protection offered in other jobs.

“The problem remains because they are without regulation, they are behind closed doors and we can’t get in to help them,” said Aida Milasari, director of women’s rights group Rumpun Gema Perempuan.

“We need regulation and we need legislation.

“Child domestic workers work in slavery conditions, we call this modern slavery,” she said.

Indonesia has labor laws that prevent children from working more than three hours a day or working between 6pm and 6am, but these do not apply in the case of child domestic workers.

Authorities in Jakarta are drafting a domestic workers law that would contain clauses protecting children, but activists say the process is in its early stages and is being dragged out.

“We’re working on a draft to look at how we can protect children. Those aged 15 years and below should not be working at all… they should be at school or playing instead,” said Wahyo Hartomo, an official from the women’s ministry.

“Those between 15 and 18 shouldn’t be made to do heavy tasks or work long hours. They should be working four to eight hours, not from morning till late at night like now,” he said.

Umi, a confident 20 year-old from eastern Java, said she moved to Jakarta at the age of 15 to work as a household nanny, her parents telling her “girls don’t need education, you belong in the kitchen anyway.”

Often working from 5am to 11pm and at one stage going without pay for four months, Umi said she wanted to leave her employer, but had nowhere to go.

“Sometimes my employer was rough; sometimes he was nice. But I was always scared,” said Umi, who dreams of becoming a school teacher.

When the workplace is someone else’s home, sexual exploitation is also an ever-present danger, said women’s activist Milasari.

Between 30 and 40 percent suffered some form of physical, psychological or sexual abuse, she said.

Both Umi and Mimin, 26, said they suffered sexual abuse, a problem activists say is compounded by the fact that children who go to police with abuse claims are often obliged to search out evidence and witnesses themselves.

“The neighbor nearly raped me but I didn’t tell my boss because I was scared and embarrassed,” Mimin said.

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