Domestic workers locked up in training

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong-bound domestic workers are being held in prison-like conditions in Indonesia - often locked away from the outside world for months on end - as they are trained up and taught Cantonese in preparation for jobs in the city.

Advocacy groups say that escape attempts from scores of such training facilities in and around Jakarta are frequent due to what they claim are squalid living conditions and physical and sexual abuse. They argue the practice could make the movement of the women into jobs here tantamount to human-trafficking.

Indonesian government officials and some employment agencies in Hong Kong say they are aware of the confinement but say it is for the helpers' own good and that they are doing their best to put an end to substandard conditions and prevent abuse.

Roostiawati, the Indonesian Manpower and Transmigration Department's director for the placement and protection of migrant workers, blamed the women's lack of education for their detention.

'During training, most of the prospective domestic helpers come from faraway villages. They are really uneducated. Can you imagine if every agency allowed them the freedom to visit their families? The distance to their villages is quite far. If they had a higher level of education which allowed them not to do domestic work, they would be free.'

Carla June Natan, co-ordinator of the Urban Community Mission in Jakarta, an NGO serving Indonesia's migrant labour force, says the fact escape attempts take place shows the seriousness of the situation.

Rights groups say that most media coverage of the plight of Indonesian domestic workers fails to address this problem, preferring to focus on the abuse of helpers once they are in employment.

Sumiati, of the Hong Kong Coalition of Indonesian Migrant Workers Organisation, said: 'Here, people aren't talking enough about the agencies. They think that because the girls choose to go to the agencies, it's not trafficking.'

Roostiawati says there are scores of agencies sending migrant workers to Asean and Middle Eastern countries. In Hong Kong, Indonesian recruitment agencies supply employment agents with workers including domestic helpers, caregivers and construction workers.

Yang Sing-min, who owns the Tuen Mun-based Lanting Employment Agency, makes frequent trips to Indonesia, where the P.T. Gunawan Sukses Abadi agency supplies him with domestic workers.

Yang knows they are confined and describes the practice as a necessary measure against escape. He says middlemen get a finder's fee of about HK$6,000, of which each prospective helper gets between HK$2,000 and HK$3,000.

'I'll tell you why she can't leave. If she leaves, the recruitment agency loses HK$6,000,' said Yang. The manager of P.T. Gunawan Sukses Abadi agreed, saying the confinement was for the helpers' protection.

Roostiawati's department recently shut down eight agencies for mistreating domestic workers, one of which she says 'kept persons just like prisoners'. She also confirmed allegations of sexual abuse.

Recruitment agency staff confiscate papers of prospective domestic workers and often their mobile phones, according to Sumiati.

Suip Indriyani, who lives at a shelter for abused Hong Kong Indonesian domestic workers in Yau Ma Tei, was one of those locked up in Indonesia. She studied Cantonese, English and domestic work for eight months and was denied contact with her family. 'It's difficult to make money,' she said, explaining why she chose to enter the agency: 'There is no choice for us.' She claims she was underfed and often felt ill.

According to Indonesian law, migrant labourers are contractually bound to their agencies until they complete their terms of service. Often subject to early termination or underpayment by their Hong Kong employers, maids who fail to pay off their fees - often more than the amount allowed by Hong Kong and Indonesian law - must return to their agencies in Indonesia.

Sumiati says the agencies often send them back abroad until they pay off their fees, in what becomes a cycle of indentured servitude.

Suip said: 'Sometimes I feel like a chicken or something you sell. I feel like [the agencies] are selling us.'

The United Nations defines human-trafficking as 'the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation'.

Natan's NGO has been fighting a losing battle with the agencies for years. 'Their licences are revoked, but the next month they open a new agency. There is a problem with law enforcement. One month we had someone closed down but the next month we found a similar case with the same people,' she says.

Roostiawati, of the ministry, wants to hire an agency using International Organisation for Standardisation standards to screen 35 per cent of Indonesian agencies to 'improve our development of the capability for services for the agencies'.

Hong Kong's Department of Labour said it 'had appealed to the relevant consulates general in Hong Kong and their officials visiting Hong Kong [regarding] our grave concerns over possible abuses'.


Visas issued to Indonesian helpers

2008: 12,341

2007: 114,411

2006: 104,129

2005: 96,904

2004: 90,045

2003: 81,030

1998: 31,762