LAST_UPDATEThu, 21 Jun 2018 8pm

Malaysia Can Do More To Protect Foreign Maids

The news of an Indonesian maid named Adelina Lisao, who was abused to death by her employers in Penang, sickened me to the core – especially upon learning the details that led to her death.

And the reason why her story especially resonated with me is because my family used to employ a foreign domestic worker whom I call ‘Kakak’ to look after me when I was a child. She played a significant role in my life while I was growing up, that I cannot imagine treating her the way Adelina was treated.

Adelina Lisao was found in pitiful condition. Photo : Nasional TempoAdelina Lisao was found in pitiful condition. Photo : Nasional Tempo

But news of abused maids in the country are nothing new, as we have seen many employers being sentenced for mistreating their maids. And the fact remains that such abuse happens almost on a daily basis, with many irresponsible individuals getting away with murder.

A Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) from Indonesia, Migrant Care, stated in 2015 that 50 abuse cases happen in Malaysia annually, but those are only the reported cases, with the estimated true numbers to be at least 1,000 cases annually.

As of 2010, Malaysian households employed foreign domestic workers mostly from Indonesia with a total of 918,000 people, followed by Bangladesh (310,000 people) and Thailand with 15,000 people.

In the same year, Associated Press reported: “Ties between Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia have been occasionally strained over incidents in which Indonesian maids working in Malaysia were assaulted or complained of other mistreatment.”

Cases Of Maid Abuse Happen In Every Neighbourhood

Nirmala Bonat's torture by her employers is arguably the first high profile maid abuse case in Malaysia.Nirmala Bonat's torture by her employers is arguably the first high profile maid abuse case in Malaysia.

True enough, when I spoke with my friends, they all relayed there was at least one case of maid abuse that has happened around their neighbourhood.

“One of my neighbours abused her maid. The maid used to confess to my mother how her employers did not allow her to pray, beat her when they caught her praying, and at one point even used cigarettes to punish her,” said Aina, 27.

A similar story was told by Fatimah, 33: “My neighbour’s maid had her head flushed down the toilet bowl and knocked on the kitchen countertop multiple time. She confided that she was made to cut and prepare pork dishes even though she is Muslim. Her Quran was also burnt and she was prevented from praying by her employers. Thankfully, the neighbours later reported the case to the police.”  

While 32-year-old Mukmin shared, “In my old neighbourhood, there was once a big furore over one of the neighbours abusing their maids. Screams were regularly heard from their house. At one point, one of the neighbours decided to confront them over their abuse, and a big fight ensued. The employers were then arrested by the police.”

In fact, one of my family members told me that one of the maids under her employ, used to tell her stories about how her friends were abused by their employers.

“She told me that she was slightly apprehensive about coming to Malaysia, as many of her friends were regularly abused by their employers,” she said.

“In most cases, the abused maids are stuck with their employers due to various reasons. Some of them were locked inside their houses with no means of getting out. And most of them had their passports held by their employers.

“There is also the factor that for some of them are actually working in Malaysia illegally. Hence, they have nowhere else to go,” she added.

What The Community Can Do To Prevent Maid Abuse

Seeing the many cases that have occurred in each neighbourhood, I spoke with Tenaganita, an NGO dedicated to protecting migrants from abuse.

Glorene Amala Das, Tenaganita executive director, shared with me some surprising statistics surrounding this issue.

From June till December of 2017, Tenaganita handled a total 120 cases of abused foreign workers. Out of these 120 cases, 82 of them are women, and most of them are maids.

Ms Glorene Amala DasMs Glorene Amala Das

"Tenaganita have been handling complaints from foreign workers which encompasses a lot of issues such as no rest day, no contract between employers and employees, withholding of passports, and many more,” she revealed.

And though the NGO is doing their best to prevent such abuse cases, she admitted that there is a lot more that can be done to help foreign domestic workers here.

“We have been asking for a specific law to protect foreign domestic workers, (separate from the Employment Act 1955) which takes into the particular situation of domestic workers.”

Glorene reiterated, “The Employment Act 1995 which purportedly protects the rights of domestic workers, does not even recognise them as workers but instead defines them as servants.

“Furthermore, their place of work, i.e the employer’s home, is seen as a private domain which is not subject to public scrutiny to ensure that the labour and human rights of domestic workers are protected.”

To overcome the issue, Tenaganita has however drafted the Domestic Workers Bill, and will be lobbying parliamentarians to pass it. Besides that, the NGO has been carrying out an outreach programme for domestic workers.

“When they can be contacted or on their off days, Tenaganita reaches out to them so that we can explain to them their rights, and if they are being mistreated by their employers,” she explained.

Glorene also said that Tenaganita has been working hard to ensure that no member of the community keeps quiet if there are any cases of abuse happening in their neighbourhood.

As for what the community can do to help report abuse or the maids themselves can do to let their voices be heard, aside the 24-hour KASIH 15999 helpline, Glorene shared, “Tenaganita has two 24-hour hotlines (012-335 0512 and 012-339 5350) which can be used to report abuses or to seek assistance.”

“We also have a Domestic Workers Campaign to raise public awareness of the situation of domestic workers, and we also run campaigns at universities and colleges and other public events to raise awareness,” she added.

Finally, Glorene reminded the community to ensure the welfare of maids around us.

“It’s up to us to take care of the foreign domestic workers around us, and ensure that they are being treated fairly. If you suspect that they are being abused, try to approach them and ask what’s going on.

“If you can’t approach them, then contact Tenaganita for help or contact your local assemblyman so that further steps can be taken.

“We should all remember that the well-being of these domestic workers are indirectly our responsibility as well.”

Foreign Domestic Workers Deserve Better Rights

An Infographic detailing the plight of domestic workers. Photo : The NationalAn Infographic detailing the plight of domestic workers. Photo : The National

The 2017 US Department of State Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report had noted that in Malaysia, “migrant workers on palm oil and agricultural plantations, at construction sites, in the electronic industry, and in homes as domestic workers are subjected to practices that can indicate forced labour, such as passport retention, contract violations, restricted movement, wage fraud, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents and employers.”

The report however stated that the government has demonstrated increasing efforts by expanding trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

Days ago, Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, the Women, Family and Community Development minister also called for stern action against Adelina’s employers and voiced for authorities carry out checks on maid recruitment companies and agencies to ensure no abuse takes place.

However, speaking with Jerald Joseph, a commissioner for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), I found out that one of the main factor that leads to the abuse of maids is due to the lack of labour laws that cover the rights of foreign domestic workers in the country.

According to Jerald, “Clearly, there is a lack of rights for foreign domestic workers in Malaysia, which causes all these cases of abuse.

“In most cases, these maids are treated like slaves by their employers, as they are forced to work long hours, with little salary. On top of that, they are also given very little break time, and with no leave.”

Jerald also pointed out that there is a grave misconception among the employers in Malaysia, as they think that it is within their rights to treat their maids in such a way.

“Most of them think that just because they are paying their salary, they are allowed to treat their workers in whatever fashion they like,” he said.

Jerald further explained to me that the biggest problem faced by these maids is that there is no place for them to issue their grievances or problems to.

Mr Jerald JosephMr Jerald Joseph

“Foreign domestic workers in Malaysia suffer from the lack of a governing body or a union where they can issue their complaints about their employers.

“In my opinion, a body needs to be set up so that these workers will be able to understand their rights, and a proper set of rules can be set up for them,” he opined.

Jerald also suggested various actions the government can take to help prevent recurring cases.

“First, as my previous recommendation, a proper body should be set up to protect the interests of foreign domestic workers.

“Secondly, stern actions should be taken towards these employers that mistreat their maids, and perhaps a list should also be made so that they cannot employ anymore maids.

“And finally, a more stringent and strict background check should be done towards prospective employers, and perhaps periodic check-ups should be done as well,” he concluded.

While majority of Malaysians are calling out for an enactment of a new law to protect the rights and welfare of foreign domestic workers, aside urging for our labour laws to be reviewed, in the meantime, it is up to us to ensure that they are treated with dignity and recognised as fellow human beings.