Indonesia Expat
Scams in the City

Of Human Bondage

Indonesian women have for decades been working abroad as domestic servants, earning much-needed revenue for their families. Unfortunately, government authorities and unscrupulous recruitment agencies tend to treat them as cash-cows, milking them for all the funds they can get.

Those working in the Middle East may be at risk of sexual abuse, while those going to Hong Kong can become trapped in indentured labour. The latter occurs when women from poor families receive advances from recruitment firms — typically to pay for training, administrative fees, a passport, airfares and placement. Extortionate fees mean that some women can end up working for seven months to pay off their debts.

Yuni Rahayu, a 37-year-old mother from the Central Java capital of Semarang, decided to work abroad as a maid so she could send her two children to college. When a death in her family prevented her from leaving Indonesia, she was jailed on charges of fraud.

In January, Yuni signed up with recruitment firm PT Maharani Tri Utama Mandiri for a job in Hong Kong. The company’s website, which has not been updated for years, offers a paltry salary of Rp.2 million per month for women who work as maids in Hong Kong.

A friend of mine telephoned PT Maharani to inquire how much the company now pays its maids in Hong Kong. The woman who answered the phone refused to reveal the exact amount but implied it was under Rp.4 million. She claimed that my friend could earn Rp.15 million per month if able to pay an up-front fee of Rp.20 million, otherwise the salary would be closer to Rp.3 million. A 2012 Manpower Ministry decree limits the amount an Indonesian worker can be charged for placement in Hong Kong to Rp.14.78 million.

In Hong Kong, minimum wage for foreign domestic helpers is set at HK$4,110 (US$530 or Rp.6.47 million) per month. An Indonesian maid provided by a rapacious recruitment firm may receive only half that — and she has to pay for various fees and charges. Little wonder that human rights groups have likened the modern-day maid trade to slavery. Still, even Rp.2.5 million per month in Hong Kong is better than Semarang’s minimum wage of Rp.1,423,500.

After meeting administrative and physical requirements, Yuni was required to attend a 60-day live-in training course before she could be sent abroad. She received a Rp.6.5 million advance, of which she claimed Rp.2.5 million was taken by the agency, purportedly to provide her with a passport. The official charge for a 48-page Indonesian passport is Rp.300,000, or Rp.600,000 for a biometric passport.

While Yuni was undergoing the training, her father fell seriously ill. She was given permission to go home on weekends to visit him. Needing to pay for hospital costs and her children’s school fees, she used the advance provided by the agency. She spent much time with her father and completed only 25 days of the training course.

Then her father died. Seven days later, PT Maharani informed Yuni they had prepared to send her to Hong Kong. If she failed to take the job, she would have to pay the agency more than Rp.16 million, comprising: administrative fees of Rp.200,000, a health check fee of Rp.250,000, Rp.300,000 for her passport, Rp.6 million for her visa, Rp.1.5 million for her training centre dormitory bed, Rp.1.2 million for training costs, an allowance of Rp.4 million, and a personal loan of Rp.3 million.

Yuni was unable to pay the huge bill and objected to the Rp.6 million charge for her visa. The actual fee for a Hong Kong visa for a foreign domestic helper is HK$160 (Rp.252,000). Hong Kong regulations stipulate this visa is to be paid for by the employer.

PT Maharani reported Yuni to police, accusing her of fraud and embezzlement under Articles 378 and 372 of Criminal Code. She requested more time to repay the money but was imprisoned in May.

She is now on trial on Semarang District Court. State prosecutors have demanded she be jailed for 18 months because she violated her agreement to work abroad and failed to settle her debt.

The Mawar Saron Legal Aid Institution says a clause in Yuni’s agreement states that any disputes should be mediated by the local Manpower Office. Furthermore, Indonesia has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, which states that migrant workers cannot be imprisoned for failure to fulfil a contractual obligation.

Police and prosecutors could crack down on errant recruitment firms for overcharging and exploiting migrant workers — but where’s the money in that?

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