Dewi was only 17 years old when she left Indonesia to work in Singapore as a maid, that is six years below the legal age in Singapore.
She found it hard to cope with her chores, and eventually it all fell to pieces. After being scolded and beaten by her employers, she fled to a shelter for troubled migrant workers.
Dewi said: “(My employer) asked me to come closer to her and I was shocked when she started to slap me…I think perhaps if I’m older, I could prevent my employer from abusing me.”
The business of sending Indonesian girls abroad to work as domestic helpers is a money-spinner – worth some US$700 million a year. Some 15 to 20 per cent of these girls are underaged and they get the help of sponsors who forge their work documents.
Professional forgers digitally alter passports and work permits for underage girls. This is a widespread practice, which authorities have found difficult to crack down on.
Armed with fake documents, the girls are then sent to a maid agency, or PT as they are called in Indonesia, to learn domestic skills and wait their turn to go abroad.
Dita Sari, a special staff with the Ministry of Labour in Indonesia, said: “We are trying really hard right now to make sure that first, there’s awareness and understanding by the local people not to manipulate the age. Every time we receive a report that this PT is manipulating the age, then we call the PT to come (down) and we will investigate.”
The government said it is likely to shut down more than half of the 565 PTs currently operating in Indonesia after it completes its nationwide investigation.
Maid agencies in host countries like Singapore are also aggrieved as they face stiff penalties for having underage maids. Many of them travel to Indonesia to interview the girls and verify their age.
Benny Liew, Director of Comfort Maid services, said: “(It is) due to no fault of ours and we are being penalized…there is no way we can judge, you know, from their looks, whether they are really underage or not.”
Indonesia is strengthening its laws to give local governments more enforcement powers on the industry but given the complex nature of the problem, that could only be the first step.