In year 2004, the first ever recorded of the nation worst abused and tortured of migrant worker, Nirmala Bonat. The news has brought to light the sad and painful incidents as a 19th year old Indonesian maid told a harrowing story of how she was repeatedly burnt with an iron and scalded with boiling water by her Malaysian employer. The Malaysian image of a caring nation has been tarnished when pictures of abused Indonesian domestic workers were featured in major newspapers. The reports made great impact as it drew series of reaction from disgusted and angry Malaysians who could not believe the fact that members of our very own community could commit such cruel acts.
I just could not bear by looking at the images of Nirmala Bonat being brutalized by her employer. What has she done to deserve such severe punishment from her employer? If indeed, Nirmala Bonat is incompetent in her daily routines work, she should have been returned to her agent for replacement. Manhandling a human being or soul, who is here to earn a better life and living is like committing a merciless crime. Five years later in 2009, another similar Nirmala Bonat case making the headlines once again. An Indonesian maid by the name, Siti Hajar was tortured by an old Malaysian lady without any sense of humanity at all towards her.
Abusing migrant domestic worker or helper is no longer something new in the society. Siti Hajar’s plight made the Malaysian and Indonesian media a headlines once more. News says that she being allegedly scalded with boiling water, tortured and starved. The worst still she is only fed with plain rice and occasionally her employer have asked the maid who is a Muslim to digest pork meat is merely unforgivable at all. One after another, Siti Hajar cases has led to an alleged rape, physical abuse, denial of salaries and basic rights of three Indonesian women by their employer in Sungai Siput, Perak. Such acts are simply inhumane.
Up to dated, statistics shows more than hundred of thousand Indonesian women are believed to work in Malaysian homes as hoping to earn a better life. Malaysia as the second largest destination for Indonesian maid after Saudi Arabia besides Kuwait, Jordan, Hong Kong and some other countries including maid working in the United States of America. There are few question that I would like to raise up here; are the Indonesian maids working aboard under a good condition? Do they have the right for their salaries or even getting a freedom of human right? Never, I do understand why the Philippines maids were not abused or even being tortured physically. Is it due to the communication breakdown between the maid and the employer?
By having a maid or migrant domestic helper, would it make things much easier or difficult for us? Not to forget, most maid from Indonesia which are brought into the country, merely are from a lower grade. This is because a much more skilled and quality ones would be sent to other countries which offer a greater lucrative sum of money, countries like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia. This would lead to Malaysian employer felt that they are being cheated as they have to be prepared to accept those lower grades migrant domestic worker. While the agents are allowed to capitalize on a lucrative business as they often wash their hands off as soon as the workers are delivered to the employers. Such situation left no option for the employer as they would need to train the lower grades domestic worker in household management from basic; How to get the laundry done? Cleaning up the bathrooms? Getting the rubbish out of the house? Baby-sitting? Helping our wives in the kitchen or even thinking of helping you and your family with cooking? With all this situations, the employer would end up with lots of burden and misery.
Before I go any further in discussing the possible measures that can be taken as to curb these issues effectively, let us take a glance at the Malaysian law and policies on migrant workers. The system that is being practice in Malaysia has put migrant domestic workers at complete disadvantage as far as seeking for justice is concerned. This is because the migrant domestic workers are at a bigger disadvantage as they are not even considered ‘workers’ and as such do not fall under the provisions of the Employment Act. Laws and policies are enforced with great speed and efficiency when migrant workers violate these laws and the situation is different when the employer does the same offences.
Even tough, migrant workers make complaints against their employers, they will be subjected to various form of abuses including verbal and physical threats. This again causes them to live under severe stress and fear. I have seen and heard many cases where workers are immediately got their contract terminated and being repatriated back to their home country where they are laden with huge debts and poverty. Therefore, domestic workers especially would put up with the abuses and torture rather than returning to their countries empty handed.
The next point that I would like to include in this essay is the forms of abuses endured by migrant domestic workers in Malaysia. Press reports merely stated that the wages to workers are not paid as per the contract even after they have fulfilled all the contract terms. Nevertheless, migrant domestic workers spend a lot of money to come to this country and most of the wages earned are often used to pay up loans and debts, which they have secured and as to feed their families back home. When employers do not pay the wages, the workers suffer the most. Beside that, migrant domestic workers are often forced to live in cramped, dirty and badly furnished shacks or crowded into houses meant for a small family. Some even sleep on the kitchen floor with just a piece of thin mattress. To be exact, domestic workers are not given a proper rooms of their own and such housing facilities that are not fit for living would lead to promote unhealthy conditions.
The situation, which I have pointed out, brought an environment where employers feel they have the ‘immunity power’. Hence migrant domestic workers are virtually at the mercy of their employers who are confident that they would be able to get away with almost anything. Some employers are fully aware that even if the matter is brought to the attention of the authorities such as the civil courts or industrial court, the immigrant policies in Malaysia would make it almost impossible for the migrant worker to successfully seek justice or redress without first either running out of money or time both which is completely controlled the policies stipulated by the Immigration Department.
It is not until the sole reason of Nirmala Bonat’s case received so much attention and quick redress was given because the severity of her injuries making the headlines of every local newspaper front page. Public outcry on her case has prompted the Malaysian authorities to swing into immediate action. The responds show that Malaysian can administer justice swiftly and effectively when it chooses to do so. It is pertinent to note that many cases go unreported in the media.
High profile cases that drew attention has forced Malaysia taking up the measures to check on maid abuses by inspecting on homes, interviews of maids and employers and also by introducing a helpline. Therefore, as to curb the problems effectively, I call on the government to grant swift action to migrant workers in seeking justice and protection. Employers who break the law must be made accountable. The government should impose heavier punishment to maid abusers. Law and policies that impede or delaying the justice system must be either amended or removed together.
The Malaysian government need to ensure that enforcement agencies such as the Immigration Department, Civil or Industrial Court and the Police Force to enforce the law without bias and prejudice. Whereby there are cases been brought to my attention that migrant workers have often been subjected to extortion by enforcement personnel. Enforcement personnel have also been known to take the employers’ side in coercing workers to comply with unfair terms of employment. These allegations of extortion and gross misconduct by enforcement personnel must be investigated. Enforcement must be carried out swiftly and impartially against employers who do not obey the law. The authorities must not wait till there is a public outrage as to get into action. In other words, all relevant authorities are to stop all type of harassment on migrant domestic workers immediately.
I personally think that the government should set minimum work and living environment standards that employers must adhere to. These can be achieved effectively as the government must ratify the International Convention on Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990 and ensure its full implementation.
The cultural differences in Malaysia as for a domestic worker to work 24 hours, seven days a week with no off day while being paid wages below the national poverty line. I would like to urge all migrant domestic workers who have been abused to bravely step forward and expose their employers as to put a stop of mistreating them. The agents too should be accountable for their carelessness and irresponsibility as most Muslims maids who work in non-Muslim homes were required to bath dogs and handled pork. Such act would utterly insensitive on the part of the employers and the agents. The solution would be that non-Muslim employers should be allowed only to hire non-Muslim maids while Muslim employers to bring in Muslim maids.
The phrase ‘Learn to live without maids’ struck my mind as I was watching Nanny 911, a television series of a Nanny assigned to homes as to help out American couples in handling and managing their families. I would like to state that men and children should also do housework. House chores are not as easy as you think it would be. We Malaysian are a lucky lot as we can afford to have maids with affordable rates and yet there are complaints of Indonesian maids now are asking for a little more. Therefore, I would say we should do the daily chores, home and outside ourselves. I have seen how typical it can be as only the women do everything at home as the men and children just laze around. Mind you there are tones of work to be done in the house besides caring for the children. There is the sweeping and mopping, cleaning the toilets, washing dishes, the laundry, the ironing, the cooking, dusting the windows and cabinets and the list goes on. This is not fair to women especially, we should have a balance and as for the men and children should lend a helping hands in assisting with the household chores. I think it is about time for us to learn to do something ourselves as this is something that we should ponder over.
I would like to suggest that we should not solely depend on maids from aboard. We could train our local women especially the single mothers or purely a fulltime housewife. We could have them to come over on daily basis or even by the hours as another alternative in curbing the problems. This will lead to a cost effective and less risk of domestic helper or maid being abuse as they are not require to stay with the employer.
Career women with families to take care of should change their mindset as placing the whole responsibility of the household works solely to the maid as their servant. Therefore to ease their worries especially those having children could send them to a nursing or a childcare center during the days and pick them up after work. The aspects of managing time with work and household duties are really hard to manage. I would say, why not we do it ourselves as life has become much more easier with new inventions with the latest technology of electrical appliances in doing household works.
Children are very much a fast pace learner in everything if they were taught on how to do handle household chores. We should train our children to be more discipline and independent from a younger age as to get rid off the sole hope on maids. Parents can start by telling them how to keep their space clean and tidy, like make up their beds as they got up from sleep, wash their own plates or even get the rubbish out of the house.
I would love to ‘Live a life without the maid’, the wife should ask the male spouse for assistance, cooperation and shares the responsibility in managing the house and their children. In most develop countries especially the westerner, we could see that the male gender does not feel ashamed when come to household works. The husband and wife would take turns and share equal responsibilities in raising and taking care of the family.
It is about time as the long-standing issue on the supply of maids is finally nearing a conclusion between Malaysia and Indonesia with the signing of the Letter of Intent (Lol) on amendments to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Recruitment and Placement of Maids from Indonesia on the 18th May 2010. The Indonesian government is expected to lift its ban since June last year as to allow its citizen to work in Malaysia again. Both government officials have been holding meetings to resolve issues in relation to the maids issue. Among the issues agreed to is that maids in Malaysia will be given one day off weekly and their right to hold on to their passports. However, employer and the maid concern could agree to forego the day off in lieu of compensation and an employer could also hold onto a maid’s passport if both parties agreed. The only issue that is still pending is the wage paid to migrant domestic workers as it requires more discussions.
Finally, I hope the government would recognize Migrant Domestic Workers as workers and grant them all the rights that come with the status. This hopefully will resolve the problem. Perhaps the employers should also be required to sign an undertaking not to physically abuse the maid and if they are unhappy, the maids are to be returned to the agency for further training or getting a new replacement.
1. Prof Datuk Dr. Nik Safiah Karim, Head of PERTIWI (2009). The Maids: Ease vs Burden. Pertubuhan Tindakan Wanita Islam (PERTIWI).
2. Prof Madya Dr. Rusinah Siron, Social Analysis. (2009). Overcome your life without Indonesian maid. Universiti Tenaga Malaysia (UNITEN), Kuala Lumpur.
3. Article ‘Maid deal soon’, The Star, 19th May 2010.
4. Article ‘Learn to live without maids’, The Star, 24th May 2010.
5. Immigration Department of Malaysia.