Jakarta is up in arms over news that an Indonesian domestic helper, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, allegedly was tortured by her Hong Kong employers for many months. Representative Mardiana Indraswati says parliament may consider new rules, including a requirement that prospective maids receive "safety training." But before politicians come up with new laws to protect their citizens working abroad, they should consider how existing rules contribute to the problem.

Indonesia already requires prospective maids to undergo training in language and domestic chores before they leave home. This forces young women from poor backgrounds to buy training services at a government-set price of around $800, in a country with per-capita GDP of $3,500 per year.

The maids repay that debt along with agency fees of up to $1,000 via salary deductions once they take up their new jobs. That debt burden helps explain why so many maids feel they can't afford to leave abusive employment situations.

Other Indonesian policies exacerbate the problem. Would-be maids are not allowed to apply directly for passports. Employment agencies must submit the paperwork for them. In theory this should protect women from human trafficking by forcing them to work through registered agents.

In practice, however, government oversight of the agencies is nonexistent, leaving them free to charge high fees. The agencies force job applicants to surrender important documents such as government IDs or land registry records that are required for passport applications but can then be held ransom until fees are repaid.

If politicians in Jakarta really want to help their citizens working overseas, they can eschew further regulation and the inevitable unintended consequences, and instead empower individual workers. That includes giving all citizens, including maids, the right to apply for key documents directly.

It also means allowing prospective maids to determine how much training, and at what price, they think they need to command a reasonable wage overseas. If such a system were in place today, it's a good bet maids would already demand, and get, briefings on their legal rights.

The Erwiana case in Hong Kong has shed useful light on the abuses many Asians face in their overseas jobs. But leaders in Indonesia and other countries that provide hundreds of thousands of workers also need to deal with the abuses their citizens suffer before they leave home.