Fellow Since 1999
Yayasan Tjoet Njak Dien Yogyakarta
This profile was prepared when Maria Pakpahan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Maria and her organization have focused their work on the difficult task of establishing the rights of domestic workers. She is taking concrete steps in the process of changing a deeply engrained traditional system and the policies and societal attitudes which support it.
The New Idea
Maria is committed to the empowerment of household "servants" in order that they be recognized as workers with all the rights and support of workers in other sectors. The three elements which are her goals and which she see as contributing to this empowerment are the formulation and passage of a law on the rights of domestic workers, empowerment of the women themselves to establish a trade union, and socialization of a contract for domestic workers. Training and other outreach programs are held in locations from which many of the women and girls originate to help them not only become more skilled in their jobs, but also better informed as to their rights and responsibilities, and better prepared for the cultural adjustment to urban life.
The use of servants in the home throughout Indonesia dates back for centuries, and in Java specifically to the time of the great kingdoms of Java and the practice of slavery by feudal lords and then the Dutch. The remnants of these feudal/slave to owner relationships still shadow the relationships often held between employer - employee in the case of domestic workers. The vast majority of these workers are women and girls from poor, village backgrounds who lack education and skills. They come to urban areas to work in middle-class and upper class homes and are considered to be "pembantu" (helpers) rather than "pekerja" (workers) with none of the rights or legal protection of other workers. This means that the minimum wage regulations and guaranteed benefits afforded other workers do not apply for them. Because they are positioned in private homes and hidden from the public, violations of their rights often go unreported and unnoticed. The women themselves, often desperate for work, have little bargaining power. All this is compounded by a frequently held attitude that they are "part of the family" which means that the relationship is informal and based on trust. Yet there is a tendency for them to be exploited and treated as second class citizens-they work long hours, eat last, and are expected to obey the wishes (and whims) of their employers and their children. The way that domestic workers are treated cannot be separated from issues of gender as the devaluation of their work is synonymous with the lack of value placed on traditionally female tasks. The problem of unfulfilled expectations works both ways, however, and the fact that some of the workers are undependable and lacking in skills leads to disappointment and frustration on the part of employers. Thus, there is incentive for change on both sides. The extent of the use of domestic workers and thus the scope of this problem throughout Indonesia is difficult to calculate as the information is not included in census reports. But, based on the number of households recorded in Yogyakarta in 1995 and the well founded assumption that households with a certain income and above will employ at least one domestic worker, it is estimated that at least 136,620 women are employed as domestic workers in the city of Yogyakarta alone. The number in Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan and Bandung would be many times greater.
Yayasan Tjoet Nyak Dien (named after a famous Acehnese heroine) grew out of a student discussion group, Forum Diskusi Perempuan Yogya (Women's Discussion Forum of Yogya) (1989-91) which Maria helped to start. The students were involved in a variety of activities related to women workers and small scale traders. From FDPY, Maria and three close friends developed YTND in 1995. At the time, Maria was working at a large national NGO in Jakarta, a position which she decided to leave in 1997 in order to return to Yogya and devote her energy to YTND and focus the program on the goal of empowering domestic workers. Since 1998 they have developed and begun to implement a five year plan which includes concrete steps towards solutions to this complex issue. They also realize that they can not just consider the urban aspect, but must also look at the problems in the villages from which these women originate.One of the first steps which they have identified as essential is the establishment of laws which state and protect the rights of domestic workers. By working first towards the formulation and adoption of a local law, they are setting the stage for a national initiative. To help formulate this ordinance YTND has worked together with other NGOs dealing with labor, women, and domestic violence, the local government, as well as members of the academic communities of Gajah Mada University and Muhamadiyah in a support network that will be prepared to help their organization deal with issues surrounding domestic workers on various levels. They have also included LBH (the Legal Aid Society) of Yogya and the special Legal Aid Society' s Women's Branch for their legal expertise in the drafting of this preliminary legislation and in dealing with cases of abuse. Besides a law which will clarify and guarantee the rights of domestic workers, Maria sees that drafting a contract is another concrete step which must be taken. She realizes that this is a sensitive issue and that a certain amount of flexibility must be worked into the final document, but that at least a minimum wage, within the regional standard and reasonable work hours must be part of a contractual agreement between the worker and the employer. She has begun spreading awareness of this idea among members of the NGO community she is asking to act as pioneers in using the contracts because they tend to be supposedly more progressive in their thinking. These individuals have been encouraged to test-run the use of a contract with their own domestic workers. She also hopes to convince certain prominent members of the community to take part by using the contract with their own workers and in so doing to serve as role models. These people will include intellectuals, cultural or religious leaders such as Abdurachman Wahid, Umar Kayam, the rector of Gajah Mada University and others.Another step is to organize the women themselves to form domestic workers' organizations and eventually a union. One such organization, OPERATA is an embryo organization under the auspices of YTND. At this time it is serving as a support group but is seen to have the potential to develop into a grass roots union run by the women themselves. The women take part in a variety of activities such as weekly discussion groups and training sessions in sewing, cooking and basket making. This group plays a much needed role in the lives of these women. For example, one of the members, Ibu Sutidjah had a problem when her son was about to drop out of junior high school because he was being teased by his wealthier friends about his mother's work as a laundress. She went to the school and protested to the teachers who were doing nothing to control this and she was successful in convincing her son to return to school where he is an excellent student. Ibu Sutidjah says that she had the courage to do so because of what she has learned in the OPERATA group about human rights. YTND has received support from INPI /PACT- USAID for their programs of advocacy, research, and documentation as well as publications to disseminate information on the issue of domestic workers to society at large. They have worked regularly with local newspapers, radio stations and the Yogyakarta TV station to include talk shows and programs on issues concerning domestic workers. They publish a quarterly magazine, EMPU, with articles and information focused on these issues. Eye-catching posters have also been produced as part of the public awareness campaign. In a society in which these workers have long been invisible, having talk shows and articles openly dealing with their rights and their issues is new and startling. In the past, one or two articles would often appear during the week following Lebaran, when domestic workers traditionally return to their villages. Families would suddenly realize how dependent they are on their domestic workers for the running of the household. Some give up and check into a hotel for a week or splurge on a holiday abroad, but for many, as they struggle with all the tasks, they gain an appreciation for their domestic workers. This lasts for a couple of weeks upon the workers' return after which they are once again taken for granted. With the media coverage, Maria has focused on the issue throughout the year consistently prodding people's consciences.Maria and her group are developing an innovative set of tools directed at each target audience. One such tool is a pocket-sized training manual which not only outlines the rights but also the responsibilities of domestic workers. A strategy employed to spread this information is that they have an open house for women working in the residential area near the organization's office. Here the women can come and relax, read newspapers, and hold informal discussions. Another way is that volunteers from YTND go to a residential area and "socialize" during the late afternoon hours (4-6pm) when the domestic workers also tend to have some free time and come into the yards and streets for informal discussion and gossip.Maria realizes that the problems of domestic workers can not be separated from the larger issue of urbanization and the fact that many people in rural areas of Indonesia are forced to migrate to cities to earn a living. The women who come to Yogya to seek employment as domestic workers often come from the surrounding villages which have very poor land and few opportunities. YTND has developed two centers in the Gunung Kidul area to provide the women with information as to their rights, as well as training in job related skills and most importantly training to help build their self esteem. In the Badran region of Yogyakarta, YTND has helped to set up a public kitchen to provide extremely low cost meals for (especially) women and children in the area who have been hard hit by the economic crisis. Here they also hold monthly discussions on socio-political, economic and family issues.Although Maria is concentrating right now on strategies and concrete steps to be taken in the Yogya region, she has made plans to spread the organization YTND to other cities including Medan, Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung, Ujung Pandang, Kupang and Denpasar. Young women activists from as far away as Bandar Lampung have apprenticed at YTND in Yogya and plan to spread the ideas through their local organizations. Maria is also actively involved in several cases of serious abuse of domestic workers by their employers. In such cases she works with an NGO, Rifka Annisa, which specializes in violence against women and she also acts as a mediator if the women wish for that or she helps to connect the workers and their families to the Legal Aid Society. When appropriate for the case, she uses her connections to expose the case through the media and spread awareness of the plight of domestic workers in general. In the future she hopes to establish an Early Warning System so that neighbors will take a responsible role in helping to prevent abuse violations.
Maria realizes that she is privileged by her upper middle class background and good education, but she feels particularly indebted to her father for introducing her to gender and human rights issues at the tender age of six when he not only pointed out transvestites to her but discussed with her the hardships and ostracism they faced. Her activism began in her high school days when she led groups doing literacy training among prostitutes and slum dwellers in Jakarta. She was the editor of the school newspaper and a leader in both high school and university student senates. While studying anthropology at Gajah Madah in Yogya she became seriously involved in the student movement protesting the construction of the Kedung Ombo Dam a World Bank funded project which displaced thousands of people. With fellow women activists in Yogya, Maria helped to organize women traders to protest the construction of a new market because it lacked accessibility and restrooms. Because of the extreme repressiveness of the early 90's in Indonesia and because there was a warrant out for her arrest, Maria was encouraged by friends to continue her studies in Holland. During that time she completed her master's degree and had the experience of working as an au pair. She saw how clearly her rights and responsibilities for this job were spelled out and ensured. She began to make connections between her concerns for gender and labor issues, and the work done by the very "backbone" of Indonesian society, domestic workers. Since returning in 1995, she has played an active role in the emerging civil society in Indonesia, maintaining a focus upon the difficult issue of the position of domestic workers.