By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia said Monday it would continue to send domestic helpers overseas, in an about-turn welcomed by campaigners who said it would help prevent women falling prey to human trafficking.
Thousands of Indonesian women travel to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia every year to become maids, attracted by promises of higher salaries despite reports of widespread abuses and near slave-like living conditions.
Jakarta had previously said it would stop sending maids overseas from this year, on the grounds of protecting the women, sparking concerns it would push more poor Indonesians desperate for jobs into illegal migration.
However a senior official at the Manpower Ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Jakarta would not go ahead with the ban but it has been in talks with countries to ensure Indonesian maids are treated in a "humane" way.
"We are not stopping Indonesians going overseas to become domestic workers but we want better protection for them," said Soes Hindharno, director for the protection and placement of Indonesian migrant workers abroad.
He said this includes preventing what he called "multi-tasking work" by Indonesian maids to reduce exploitation.
"If they are housekeepers, they are housekeepers - they clean, cook and iron. If they are babysitters, they are babysitters - you can't ask a babysitter to bathe your dog."
Currently, Indonesian women who work as maids abroad are required to stay at the home of their employer, handling tasks from cleaning to looking after children or the elderly - a rule activists say making them vulnerable to abuse.
Migrant activists welcomed the decision, but said more needed to be done to combat human trafficking including ensuring women aware of their rights when leaving for work overseas.
"It is a basic right to go abroad to work. If the government stops this, we will only see more human trafficking cases," said Mulyadi, a co-founder of rights group Migrant Care, who like many Indonesian goes by one name.
Indonesia since 2015 has banned women from going to 21 Middle Eastern countries following a series of abuse cases but high-demand for maids has encouraged traffickers to find ways around the curbs.
Hindharno said the Middle East ban would stay in place.
Domestic helpers make up more than a third of the six million Indonesian working abroad.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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