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Jakarta Post

'What about us?': Domestic workers feel neglected amid virus outbreak

  • Ardila Syakriah
    Ardila Syakriah

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, March 18, 2020   /   05:55 pm
'What about us?': Domestic workers feel neglected amid virus outbreak A domestic worker washes dishes in July 2019. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)

When President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo made a televised appeal for Indonesians to work from home on Sunday as part of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) containment efforts, 40-year-old Asri knew the message was not for her.

Rather, it might even mean longer working hours for her and millions of fellow domestic workers across the country.

Asri, who has been working as a domestic worker for 16 years, often stays in an apartment owned by her employer, a British woman, in South Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, although she mostly stays at a rented place nearby. South Tangerang has recorded five confirmed COVID-19 cases so far, with one person recently dying from the disease.

"I'm not that worried about myself and the virus [...] But I know there are some other workers nearby who aren't provided with face masks and hand sanitizer by their employers. Now that employers and their children are home all the time, they are bound to have an increased workload, too," she said on Wednesday.

As Indonesia reports increasing confirmed COVID-19 cases since the first two cases were recorded on March 2, fears have mounted, prompting panic buying and hoarding of face masks and hand sanitizer that has led to massive shortages and surging prices.

This situation has made it difficult for lower-income groups, which already lack access to health care, to purchase their basic needs.

"I hope the government prevents rich people from hoarding because the poor are the most affected," Asri said.

The social distancing called for by the President appears to be possible only for some white collar workers, given that as many as 74.1 million Indonesians work in the informal sector, further limiting their chances of working from home.

At least 4.2 million domestic workers take care of almost all the housework for their employers, but their unclear work contracts and weak bargaining positions have often led to long working hours, low salaries and few or no days off. The long-stalled deliberation of a bill on domestic workers protection, drafted in 2004, does not help either.

Advocacy group the National Network for Domestic Worker Advocacy (Jala PRT) polled 668 domestic workers in seven regions in 2019 and found that 98.2 percent of the respondents earned only between 20 and 30 percent of the respective regional minimum wage.

Only 42 percent of those surveyed are contribution assistance recipients under the national health insurance scheme -- low-income patients who have their premiums paid by the government -- and almost none of them are recipients of social security from the Workers Social Security Agency.

"I'm brave enough to negotiate with my employer on my earnings and working conditions. Not all domestic workers have the same courage. It's the government's job to require employers to fulfill domestic workers' rights," said Asri, who said her employer had ensured her wellbeing amid the outbreak.

She said she was relying on information from Jala PRT network on how to mitigate the risks of COVID-19, believing it would prompt other domestic workers to be more aware of their rights amid the pandemic.

"The government only thinks of office workers," she said.

Domestic workers can no longer rely on the government and their employers, Lita of Jala PRT said, but rather on each other at times like this.

She said an apartment complex in Jakarta was barring entry to domestic workers who did not stay with their employers, adding that her organization was now preparing for domestic workers suddenly having their contracts terminated in the near future.

Jala PRT is preparing its members on how to negotiate with their employers and promises to provide them with legal assistance when necessary, given that the majority of employers still adopted an approach of no work, no pay.

"Domestic workers don't even have the courage to ask if their employers have symptoms of the disease, because there's a power imbalance. It's always the workers who are suspected of bringing the diseases," Lita said.

The concept of social distancing might also not fit the nature of their job, given that droplets can remain on surfaces for quite a long time, especially as some workers have to share a room with their employers, Lita said.

Jala PRT urged the government and employers to ensure that not only domestic workers, but also middle- and lower-class people, would still earn their income and have equal access to healthcare services and that their children would have access to education. Many classes are running online now, while only about 60 percent of Indonesians have access to the internet.

Calls for the government to impose a lockdown are mounting amid a spike of cases, with a 2018 law requiring the central government to provide basic needs for the people once they are imposed.

Low-income households would be the worst-hit by a lockdown given that most of them could not put money aside for emergency savings, Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (INDEF) researcher Eko Listiyanto said.

The government must disburse direct and non-direct assistance to informal workers by making use of existing data from the government-funded social assistance Family Hope Program (PKH), he said.