Why Domestic Workers in Indonesia Are Hunger Striking

4 minute read

Some 50 domestic workers took to the front of Indonesia’s parliamentary compound in Jakarta on Monday, sitting under a tent with plates before them. But it wasn’t a feast: the plates instead were piled with sponges, cleaning rags, and baby bottles—emblematic of the breadth of household service work done without legal protections for decades.

Southeast Asia’s largest economy has long relied on more than 4 million workers—of which an estimated 3 in 4 are women, while some 2% are aged between 10-17—for household service work, enabling middle- to upper-income families to focus on more lucrative endeavors. Despite this, these domestic workers don’t receive the normal benefits that other laborers in Indonesia do, putting them at risk for systemic discrimination and violence. Activists report more than 3,200 complaints of violence against domestic workers since 2015, including horrific stories of women being forced to eat animal waste and chained to dog cages.

Demand for legislation to create stronger safeguards began as early as 2004, but Indonesia’s parliament has stalled on enacting reform. Fed up of waiting, around 360 domestic workers across six major cities—Jakarta, Medan, Tangerang, Semarang, Yogyakarta, and Makassar—vowed to take turns in a hunger strike, fasting from sunrise to sunset starting Aug. 14, whether in public or in their homes, until the much-awaited bill moves forward in parliament.

Whether or not this latest strike will bear fruit remains to be seen. “The state must be there to regulate the domestic workers’ situation,” Lita Anggraini of the National Advocacy Network for Domestic Workers, who was among those going on strike, tells TIME. “The law is fundamental and very urgent.”

How can the bill help?

In a 2006 review of Indonesia’s policies, the International Labor Organization said that the Indonesian government’s interpretation of its key labor law—Law No. 13 of 2003 on Manpower—falls short of explicitly recognizing domestic workers as a formal labor sector. Because of this, they are not provided the protections afforded to enterprise employees, including minimum wage, social security, and access to mechanisms for resolving labor disputes.

While other national laws like the elimination of domestic violence and child protection have addressed some issues in part, the proposed Domestic Workers’ Protection Bill (PPRT), say advocates, would provide all-encompassing measures that will formally recognize domestic workers as laborers. Among other benefits like written contracts stipulating the scope of work, rest days, and salary, the bill penalizes those who are convicted of violence against their domestic workers with up to eight years in prison, according to Channel News Asia. It also sets a minimum age requirement of 18 for domestic work.

What’s delaying the law?

In January, President Joko Widodo said he ordered cabinet ministers to coordinate with lawmakers to fasttrack the bill’s passage. “They are vulnerable to losing their rights as workers,” he appealed. By March, the PPRT was made a priority legislation again

It’s not the first time the PPRT has been considered a legislative priority, only for it to be forgotten. In July 2020, lawmakers appeared to endorse the bill in a plenary session, but House leadership declined to approve the endorsement, citing “administrative reasons.”

Muhamad Isnur, a human rights lawyer from the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, says lawmakers are not rushing to pass the bill because they could not reap benefits from it. “A lot of laws are giving benefits for oligarchs, for the rich people, for the highest of ranks,” Muhamad tells TIME. “But when we talk about laws for people’s rights, it’s slow. And it needs big pressure from the people.”

Lita, of the National Advocacy Network for Domestic Workers, is worried that domestic workers may be placed on the sidelines again, as lawmakers pivot their attention to the general elections in 2024. “They forget the domestic workers, they forget the law,” she tells TIME. “Without the domestic workers in the house, they cannot do, they cannot work.”

How common are hunger strikes in Indonesia?

Many demonstrators have resorted to hunger strikes to capture the government’s attention. In 2013, two children staged a hunger strike in Bali after failing to get the local government on board with a plastics ban campaign. Shortly after the strike began, Bali’s governor yielded. Some refugees in the country, in protest of tight border policies, also refused to eat for days in 2021. And last December, five of 16 hunger strikers protesting against a mining company in West Sumbawa some 700 miles away from the capital were rushed to the hospital after they collapsed

Asked whether the domestic workers think the latest hunger strike will work, Lita said, “We’ll always try what we can do and never give up.”

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