‘Single, pretty, proportionate body’: Discriminatory job ads in Indonesia are illegal but nobody is stopping them

Illustration. Coconuts Media / Andra Nasrie
Illustration. Coconuts Media / Andra Nasrie

Nur left her job in 2014 to give birth and raise her baby. She wasn’t eligible for maternity leave at the time, let alone benefits, because she was still under a probationary contract and not yet a permanent employee at her company.

Almost four years later, confident she can now leave her child with a sitter during the day, Nur, like many other Indonesian women in her situation, is finding it difficult to return to the workforce — she is being “filtered out” by job ads before she can even apply.

Although she has experience as a receptionist, the 29-year-old has found most job ads for the position specify an age range she is now beyond, meaning her chances of securing employment lessen with each passing year. And since employers want to avoid having to provide maternity leave — or the hassle of looking for a temporary replacement — many require their receptionists to be single as well.

Dhee’s story is different but achingly similar. She was a barista in college, a skilled practitioner of the latte arts. While serving coffee was never her ultimate career goal, after graduating and moving to another city, she decided to look for another barista position.

Unfortunately, the shy 23-year-old says she felt discouraged from applying as many coffee shops specifically spelled out in job ads that their employees must be “pretty,” have “proportionate bodies,” or “be at least 160 cm tall.” Requirements that feel oddly disconnected from the skill set necessary for making or serving coffee.

A job ad for a barista. The ad requires candidates to be 22 at most, never been married, and at least 165 cm tall for men and 160 cm for women. It did not state how those requirements could affect one’s coffee-making skills.

Last year, female netizens questioned state-owned train company PT KAI as to why job ads for machinists, operations and maintenance officers were being offered only to men. But the wellspring of reaction needed to turn their search for answers into a much-needed national conversation about sexism never materialized. Few in the Indonesian mainstream media reported on it; even fewer expressed outrage.

A tweet from PT KAI, Indonesia’s national railway company, responding to a netizen’s query about why a job ad was specifically targeted for men.

And there’s the rub. There has never been an uproar over these blatantly discriminatory job ads — even though they are, in fact, violating the law.

‘Can’t compare Indonesia to developed countries’

Yudi Rijali Muslim is the founder of the Tridharma Legal Aid Institute (LBH Tridharma), which helps employees fight for their rights in cases ranging from unlawful termination to attacks on union rights to gender pay disparity. But Yudi says that little, if anything, is being done to tackle discriminatory employment ads in Indonesia, which breach a variety of legal statutes.

Indonesians are guaranteed equal employment opportunities under Article 5 of Law no. 13/2003 of The Workforce Act, which enforces the Constitution’s guarantee that all citizens have the right to employment for a decent living. The government also defines treating people differently based on gender, age, or physical features as discrimination under Law no. 39/1999 on Human Rights. Indonesia has also ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention no. 111, which aims to abolish discrimination both in employment opportunities and in the workplace.

Yudi says that a lack of awareness about these laws, as well as their admittedly weak enforcement, contribute to the ubiquity of discriminatory job ads that confront women like Nur and Dhee on a daily basis.

“Why do companies still do this? It’s because there have been no warnings from human rights groups, like Komnas HAM (National Commission on Human Rights), Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women). There has been no stern action against this discrimination, so it’s accepted as something normal,” he said.

‘For example, in America, female flight attendants can be old, but they are professional, unlike our flight attendants, who must be young and pretty.’

Without independent action by these government-funded bodies, Yudi says those affected the most — job seekers with few resources or time on their hands — can’t do much more than move on when told they’re unable to apply for a particular job.

“Not to blame the people, but their [financial] condition, their ignorance towards the law, and the fact that they need jobs — they’re in a dilemma. So most would say, ‘why bother? If I’m not hired, then so be it,’” he said.

“We can’t compare Indonesian job seekers to those from Singapore, America and other developed countries. Currently, unemployment is high and job prospects are limited, so when there’s a job opening, it becomes a rare, competitive opportunity for them. The corporations then create their own standards and requirements as they please due to an excess in the supply of job seekers.”

Even if rights groups or the Ministry of Manpower decide to act against discriminatory job ads, the best anyone can hope for from the current toothless legislation are administrative sanctions (a.k.a. written warnings) against the offending corporations.

You read that correctly. While discrimination is against the law, there are no real penalties for it.

Mindset change needed

Yudi’s concern about the lack of awareness surrounding discriminatory job ads were echoed by Komnas Perempuan Commissioner Khariroh Ali.

“We get many complaints at Komnas Perempuan. However, there have been no official complaints so far regarding discrimination towards job seekers from individuals or communities. We believe that the ads are actually unfair, because everyone should have equal access to jobs,” she said.

“The root of these ads lies in how women are treated like objects to attract [customers or clients]. This is driven by capitalistic powers that operate under the assumption that women can improve business using their beauty, not professionalism.

“For example, in America, female flight attendants can be old, but they are professional, unlike our flight attendants, who must be young and pretty. If they’re young and professional that’s fine, but are they necessarily better than their older counterparts, such as in times of emergency?”

[Discriminatory job ads] make HR practitioners’ jobs easier since internal discussions on new hire often take these discriminatory requirements into consideration anyway.

Khariroh added that Komnas Perempuan, which also handles such grave issues as gender-based violence and child marriage, is ready to listen to complaints about discriminatory job ads and act on them. 

“This is an interesting issue that we truthfully hadn’t paid much attention to. If we receive complaints about them, we will take strategic steps to change people’s mindsets in order to tackle discrimination,” she said.

“It’s true that people don’t really pay attention to this issue, but people have to be aware of it. Who knows, maybe the millennials can help usher in change for a truly gender-equal society.”

‘It’s company policy’

Both local and international job websites with listings for Indonesia are guilty of allowing discriminatory ads, the former generally more so than the latter. Out of numerous websites contacted for this article, only JobStreet, which has offices in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, responded and said they’re aware of the discrimination.

Riza Herlambang, corporate care manager at JobStreet Indonesia, said they have tried to combat discriminatory job ads in a number of ways. At first, Riza said JobStreet’s employees manually screened ads for ethical and legal violations, but they have now added an automated system to block job ads if they receive complaints from users.

“If the ad discriminates on the basis of gender, we’ll block it automatically using the system. If it turns out that discriminatory ads pass through the filter, we’ll delete it and we’ll re-educate the employer,” Riza said.

“Nowadays, there aren’t as many complaints about discrimination. Several years ago, there were many complaints about gender discrimination, even from men, because they too were concerned about the presence of job ads specifically targeted at men. We erased (the ads) afterwards.

“We are getting stricter.”

A job ad for a receptionist. Candidates must be female, 28 at most, at least 160 cm tall and have a proportionate weight, as well as pretty, “good looking and good communication.”

While JobStreet is more progressive on the issue than other job sites (particularly local ones), you can still easily find a handful of troublesome ads even there by searching keywords like “cantik” (pretty).

So, I reached out to some of the companies and businesses who were posting the blatantly discriminatory job ads on JobStreet in the first place. None were able to give a more satisfactory response than a shrugging “it’s company policy” after it was pointed out that what they were doing was illegal.

Each said they would have to ask their superiors if they planned to bring their policies in line with the law, and assured me they would get back to us at a later date. None did. And no, the job ads have not changed.

Curious why employers would be so comfortable disregarding employment law, I sought answers from an HR professional — one who asked to remain anonymous — working for a large media company in Indonesia.

As she explained it, putting out discriminatory requirements in job ads serves as a way to filter out some of the huge deluge of applicants they get every time they advertise a vacancy. As they know discriminatory requirements will be taken into account later in the process anyway, its seen as easier to simply get that out of the way at the job ad stage.

But are they actually aware of the laws against discrimination? In short, yes, my source tells me. But since nobody’s ever called them out, why stop now?

“It’s company policy,” she said.

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