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Domestic Hell…

I went to the Fiesta Feminista last week – it was well worth the time and I saw a number of interesting speeches, though I was also helping out so I wasn’t able to see them all. I was also rapporteur for a National Media Monitoring Survey (organised by AWAM) workshop project that also provided gender awareness training for media practitioners.

I attended a talk about migrant workers – seemed interesting, and being a life-long immigrant myself, something I feel some resonance with, though I have always been on the privileged edge of it…

As part of the talk there was a testimony by a brave lady (whose name I didn’t get though, sorry – her talk was being translated). She has no, or very little, education, but her intelligence and integrity shone through as, choking back tears, she told how she had lived through virtual slavery for about three years, in order to provide for better education for her children.

She came to Malaysia with the promise of a job paying RM400/month; once she got here she was told it was reduced to RM370. She swallowed that, and began her gruelling work: up at 6am every day she worked until 12pm for a family of 15 people – cooking, cleaning, and washing all the clothes by hand, being forbidden from using the washing machine. In the afternoon she had to help her employer’s sister make kuih for the market. On Saturdays she had to wash the 3-5 cars the family owned, and on Sundays she had to get up at 4am so as to be able to do her usual tasks, and go to clean her employer’s mother’s house in the afternoon.

Tenaganita leaflet

Throughout this time she was not allowed to call home, not allowed to leave the house, and not paid her salary. She was also forced to cook pork (she is Muslim) – despite having said she didn’t want to when signing up – and was not allowed to pray or fast properly.

After two years she told her employer that she didn’t want to renew her contract, but he renewed her work permit for another year anyway. He then allowed her to return home, but only gave her half of her owed salary. When she got home, her husband told her not to go back: she tried to get the rest of her salary and couldn’t, and eventually went back because they needed the money.

The punishing regime continued as before: her health deteriorated, but the employer would not take her to a doctor/the hospital, but only gave her Panadol; she said that over all the time she worked there, she was only taken to see a doctor three times. Things came to a head when her employer’s sister also got a domestic worker, and told her not to talk to the new domestic worker. She agreed, but the sister did not like her tone of voice or something, and started to tell her employer not to feed her rice but something else [I didn’t catch what]; by this time she understood enough Chinese to catch their drift and repeated to the sister that she would not talk to her domestic worker – they took umbrage at this and proceeded to beat her, with their hands and a clothes hanger.

After a few days, the police took her away, [I don’t know how/why they came into the picture] and from the police station Tenaganita took responsibility for her.

She finished her harrowing testimony by asking the following:
• That people treat domestic workers as humans
• That domestic workers be allowed one day off a week, or at least once a month
• She also described how her hands were damaged from the detergent she had to use for 2-3 hours a day washing clothes, and how the strength in her right hand was failing, and occasionally she lost her grip

I was shocked by the realisation of how much she needed the money, so much that she actually come back to the hell she had been living in for two years to get RM4440… how a family who can afford to have five cars will refuse to pay someone their meagre RM400 a month (or RM370)… and how someone can be so cruel as to not allow them to contact their family for two years… And then of course it was pointed out to me later that many domestic workers have suffered much worse.

Tenaganita leaflet


In the discussion that followed, the following points were highlighted:
• Domestic workers are not classified as workers, and thus have no protection under the employment law. This was contrasted with Hong Kong where they sign a contract to work for a particular person only (i.e. they can’t be farmed out to relatives, etc.), the number of the people in the family is specified, and even the accommodation space is specified. If the employer fails to conform to any of the specifications in the contract, s/he can be sued.
• A day off is vital for domestic workers’ mental and physical well-being.
• Being aware of their rights is not much use if the domestic worker is kept locked in the home (a common practice apparently), or intimidated in other ways (e.g. being threatened that they’ll be deported/jailed and never be able to work in Malaysia again).
• We all have a responsibility to prevent abuse of domestic workers, if we see it happening in our family, with our neighbours, or with friends.

I feel that granting domestic workers the same legal status as any other worker would be the minimum first step, and a day off a week is also essential.

In addition, I think that by making recruitment agencies responsible for the well-being of their domestic workers would be good way to reduce the rampant abuse and despicable treatment of domestic workers. That way, the agency would have to make regular checks to make sure the domestic workers they have placed are being treated properly, getting their salary paid, etc. If they were to find out something was wrong, they could remove the worker, and get him/her placed elsewhere; conversely, if a domestic worker was found to have been abused, not paid, etc., and the agency didn’t do anything about it, then the agency would be held responsible for any related charges and also be fined, and eventually have their licence revoked. Not to mention the employer him/herself who should also be punishable under the law.

If this was implemented properly, agencies would make sure that their placements were with decent employers, and could maintain a list of blacklisted employers, etc. Also, irresponsible agencies would eventually be no longer able to do business.

For those employers who do treat a domestic worker well, but s/he runs away all the same: the agency should provide another one for no extra charge, or at least a reduced charge. The great majority of domestic workers will not run away if they are treated decently, and paid fairly.

Tenaganita Domestic Worker 24h Action Line: 012-335 0512 or 012-339 5350 or 03-2697 3671

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Boo on :

Oh dear...what a terrible ordeal. The main thing really is the fact that domestic workers are not classified as workers. Once they are, then it's a lot easier for them to have minimum monthly salary rates, labor rights etc.

But of course, it would then raise costs, which the government might not like. After all, the reason a lot of domestic workers come from Indonesia is because they're extremely cheap.

It really is so much like slave labor. Sigh... :S

julian on :

Hi Boo, yes it's weird that they work in some kind of parallel world where they are not considered to be workers...

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