Child domestic workers suffer in silence
Job opportunities: A sign printed on the glass window of a job agency for domestic workers advertises for pembantu rumah tangga (domestic workers).
One of the most serious challenges facing NGOs, social workers and other organizations fighting to protecting child domestic workers is the problem of access and monitoring. Hidden away in their employers’ home, isolated from their families and forbidden to socialize, these young workers are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“The motivation of an employer who recruits a child rather than an adult is often to find someone who will work for less, who will complain less, who is easier to order around, and who has fewer social connections,” reported Human Rights Watch in 2009.
Child domestic workers often come from impoverished villages far from the cities where they work.
Most are forced to enter domestic work because their families cannot afford school tuition fees and they have no skills or formal qualifications.
Many child domestic workers are at the mercy of their employers. CARE International Indonesia’s survey of 242 child domestic workers in Tangerang found that almost 90 percent had no written contract with their employer, 65 percent never had a day off and 12 percent had experienced violence in their workplace. It is also not uncommon for employers to forbid them to contact their families, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Every door in the house was locked and the mistress kept all the keys. The only times I ever went out were to take the garbage outside and even then, they always checked first to make sure no one was around,” Kaminah says.
Over a nine-month period in 2008, Kaminah was subjected to malnutrition, vicious beatings and other psychological and verbal abuse from her employers in Tangerang. The couple was jailed for their horrific treatment of the then-15-year-old last April.
“Every time my parents called, the mistress told them I was in Bandung with her husband. So many times the phone would ring and the mistress would say: ‘Wrong number, wrong number’. I just had a feeling it was my parents trying to reach me,” Kaminah says.
“One time, my father came to the house and the mistress told him to go away, that I wasn’t home.”
Unaware of their rights and cut off from all support, many children suffer alone and in silence.
“The lady of the house was often mad at me,” Kaminah says. “One time, she got angry while she was cooking. She asked me: ‘Why are you working so slowly?’
“Then she took the spatula she was cooking with and pressed it against my face. It was covered in hot oil.”
Abuse can also take other forms, including sexual or psychological abuse. Kaminah recalls being terrified that her family would never see her again when her employer told her she was going to die in 10 days.
“We’ve already got a plot of land for you,” she told the young girl. “We don’t need to bury you; we’ll just dump your body in.”
Other times, her employer would mock her. “You are so ugly,” she would say to Kaminah. “If you’re this ugly, I can’t imagine how ugly your family must be.”
When asked why she thinks her employer said this, Kaminah hesitates and looks at the ground.
“At the time, my face wasn’t really normal…She had beaten me very badly a few days earlier and there were open wounds on my head. They never allowed me to clean or treat the wounds properly so they usually got infected…You could smell the blood.”
Although Kaminah was promised a salary of Rp 400,000 per month, she never saw a penny of it. This is not an uncommon tale, according to labor groups and NGOs, which say failure to pay or paying less than promised is one tactic employers use to discourage or prevent children from leaving.
However, there are some indications the struggle to protect Indonesia’s child workers may be gaining momentum, with the National Parliament’s Commision IX confirming that domestic workers are one of its top two priorities for 2010.
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