Indonesia will prevent its female citizens from working as housemaids and domestic helpers in foreign countries earlier than widely expected, it emerged after a meeting of the country’s National Congress on February 14.

Newly-appointed President Joko Widodo said that Indonesia would stop sending its women to work as maids overseas “to preserve the country’s dignity” and told Congress that “Indonesian women going overseas to work as housemaids must stop immediately”. He added that he had also instructed the manpower ministry to come up with a strategy to end the practice of sending female domestic workers abroad.

Originally, Indonesia planned to stop sending maids abroad only from 2017, but certain incidents prompted Widodo to accelerate the plan.

The exact number of Indonesian women working as maids abroad is not clear as many are working illegally in other countries, especially in Indonesia’s Southeast Asian neighbour nations. All in all, as many as 2.3mn Indonesians are working abroad, mostly in Malaysia, Singapore and Gulf countries. Of this number, 1.2mn are illegal workers (mainly in Southeast Asia, fewer in the Gulf) and more than half are believed to work as maids.

Apparently, the ban seems to be already in effect for most of the Arab countries, at least according to media reports in Dubai published on February 17 saying that the Indonesian embassy in Abu Dhabi has confirmed that the country has already stopped sending domestic workers to the UAE “and all other Arab countries”. According to the report, there are 90,000 Indonesian workers in the UAE, of which “many” are working as maids.

In Qatar, there are around 39,000 Indonesian expats of which around 20,000 are employed as domestic helpers, according to census data. The largest group of Indonesians in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries can be found in Saudi Arabia, with an estimated 850,000. This is why the implications of a ban of Indonesian maids to work in the GCC are probably most serious for Saudi Arabia.

Within Southeast Asia, Singapore and Malaysia would be hit hard by a potential maid ban. There are around 125,000 Indonesian household workers in Singapore alone, making up more than a half of the Indonesian worker population in the city state. Employment agencies say that the impact could be “huge” if a “supply cut” of Indonesian maids comes into effect.

In Malaysia, where around 109,000 maids from Indonesia are working, labour officials say potential employers will have to look for “alternative channels” such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar and even China and East Timor to hire foreign domestic helpers.

Problems with semi-legal labour agencies should also be solved, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on February 6 during a state visit by Widodo, mentioning that “we realise that only just over 4,000 maids (currently working in Malaysia) entered the country through the official channel, while the remaining 105,000 had come through unofficial channels”.

Indonesian Manpower Minister Hanif Dhakiri has been pushing to improve education and provide skills training for female citizens wanting to go abroad to allow them to work in a better-paid job such as babysitters or caregivers instead of just sending “lowly-educated, unskilled domestic workers abroad”. –Arno Maierbrugger, Bangkok