13 Desember 2010

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RI domestic helpers expected to work with no tools of trade

The other day I was discussing with a friend the situation of Indonesian women who went to work as domestic helpers in other countries in Asia, when she suddenly confessed that more than once she had nearly slapped her domestic helper in the face. I gasped.
My friend asked me to hear her out. Were we in Hong Kong? Singapore or Taiwan? No, we were in Medan, and my friend was a native of Medan. Was she neurotic? As far as I know, she was as normal as the next person.
What she proceeded to tell me was not new. I had heard it before in Hong Kong, Singapore and other cities in Malaysia when I was doing research for a book on the issue. Yet I hadn’t expected to hear it from a friend. When I had regained my composure, I began to think and become alarmed at the implications
of what she had told me — that the situation of Indonesian domestic helpers had not improved very much, if at all.
The story began when upon contacting a domestic helper agency, a young woman presented herself at my friend’s house. Let us call her Ina. My friend was struck by how young Ina looked. She had asked for someone in her 20s. Ina claimed to be 21. Not wanting to treat the young woman like a commodity that could be returned to the shop at will, my friend agreed to give her a try.
Within a week my friend knew that Ina was not equipped with the skills the agency claimed she had.
However, instead of sending her back to the agency, my friend decided to retain her and train her herself.
Ina proved to be a slow learner. She kept making mistakes. Unfortunately some had costly consequences.
Ina’s working relationship with my friend eventually worked out, thanks to tenacity on both sides. There were times when the frustration borne of repeated failure nearly put an end to efforts at making it work.
My friend discovered that Ina did not have a learning disability as such, but she had an amazing ability to “turn off” as soon as she thought she had done something wrong.
“Her face would turn wax-like and her eyes clouded. She’d say, yes ma’am, yes ma’am, to whatever I said, though I knew darned well she wasn’t taking in a single thing. I wanted to slap her face simply to wake her from that trance-like state! Lucky I never did!”
I had heard about the “turning off” behavior a number of times from frustrated employers of Indonesian domestic helpers in several countries during my research. In my interviews with the domestic helpers themselves I discovered that many of them did not understand the language meant to be the medium of communication with their employers. These women told me they had hardly been given any training by their recruitment agencies, let alone language instruction.
The employers I interviewed each claimed that the placement agency with whom they did business promised that the domestic helper assigned to them would be able to speak their nominated language, at least at a functional level.
I must emphasize here that this was indeed the case on many occasions. Then what happened when an employer received a domestic helper who could not speak the nominated language, could not cook, clean the house, or do proper laundry?
This was where the domestic helpers came to grief. The employer would have paid a fair sum of money to the agency, and in the case of Singapore, the employer would also have paid a separate sum to the government for the privilege of employing a foreign domestic helper.
The potential for anger and frustration directed at the most powerless and vulnerable party, the domestic helper, was only too real.
And if the domestic helper was unable to communicate with her employer, she would not be able to explain her side of the story, and most likely, she would “turn off”.  This, in turn, would no doubt aggravate the situation even further.
During my research I discovered that there were good and responsible recruitment agencies that would ensure that the recruits receive as proper and as adequate training as possible, were taught the languages used by their prospective employers, and would see that recruits have proper documents before leaving for destination countries where corresponding agencies would take care of their placement. And indeed, most of these arrangements worked well.
 I was invited to their training centers and given access to the recruits’ subsequent correspondence during their employment. When I met some of these women, among the experiences they related to me were incidents where they had had to negotiate their way out of a tight situation that arose because of cultural and other kinds of misunderstanding.
I also discovered, however, that there were dubious recruitment agencies who apparently had business arrangements with slap-dash placement agencies in destination countries. I had never been inside any of their training centers, if such things existed, but I knew of their practices from the domestic helpers who ran into trouble with their employers.
Why then, did the Indonesian government not provide legal protection to those domestic helper aspirants who left in droves to work in other countries where, even when well-trained, they often found themselves having to negotiate difficult situations given social and cultural differences?
The Law No. 39/2004, meant to provide protection to Indonesia’s migrant workers, has been proven to neglect domestic helpers in its legal protection coverage. Even more serious, enforcement of this law has been so weak that many domestic helper candidates sent by irresponsible recruitment agencies — hardly trained in any respects — managed to slip past the final tests effectively unchecked.
A number of domestic helpers
I interviewed recalled that their training had hardly progressed beyond the emphasis, “When your employer talks to you, don’t answer back. Don’t act impudent!” It is possible that they absorbed this “wisdom”, consciously or subconsciously, and this may be behind the “turning off” strategy to which many have resorted.
Not only were they not given proper work training, they were not equipped with the most important communication tool — the language. And in such situations, no doubt their youth and lack of life experience may not have helped.
That was five years ago. And the situation has not improved.

Dewi Anggraeni
The writer, a journalist based in Melbourne, is the author of Dreamseekers; Indonesian Women as Domestic Workers in Asia.
Opini The Jakarta Post 13 Desember 2010