Indonesia-Malaysia deal on domestic workers fails to eliminate modern-day slavery

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abdar Rahman Koya

Safar 02, 1427 2006-06-02

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya

In the last issue, we reported on the protests by expatriate workers in Dubai against their treatment there. Now ABD RAHMAN KOYA in Kuala Lumpur reports on the plight of Indonesia domestic workers in Malaysia, and the shortcomings of a new agreement between the countries.

Leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia met in Jakarta on May 13 to sign a much-discussed memorandum, ostensibly to protect the hundred of thousands of Indonesian women working as domestic helpers, or ‘maids’, in Malaysia. The memorandum introduces changes to laws governing the employment of foreign maids, whose presence in Malaysia has resulted in an industry that deals in ‘servants’ and ‘maids’ that resembles the slave-trade of past centuries.

The memorandum has been much debated by human-rights groups and immigration officials from both sides of the border. There are now more than 300,000 Indonesian women in Malaysia; they work mostly as domestic helpers in a growing number of Malaysian households, comprising more than 70 per cent of foreign maids in the country. But even the memorandum, hailed by officials as a step forward to protect the most vulnerable migrant workers in the country, fails to address the inhuman conditions of transit and treatment of these workers.

For one thing, they are still not entitled to full rights under Malaysia’s employment act, and no constructive change has been made to address the abuses of the women, from the stage of trafficking to their welfare when they are held in ‘maid agencies’, and then in the houses where they live, where they are most likely to be shut away from outsiders.

Since the demise of Mahathir’s government there has been some reduction in the official xenophobia towards migrants, yet despite their immense economic contribution the case of domestic helpers has been largely ignored. Their predicament is different from the normal employee-employer relationship, and hidden from the public eye because of the nature of their workplace. Their ordeal begins the moment middlemen and employment agents recruit them in remote and poor villages of Indonesia, through training and transit, to their time of return, often after unpleasant, or even traumatic, experiences.

The welfare of Indonesian maids has been neglected not only because of Jakarta’s failure to demand more rights – which is attributed to high unemployment in Indonesia – but also because of an increasing acceptability of the servant-master relationship among Malaysians. Such a development is no surprise when members of a society become accustomed to thinking that these women who help in their households are commodities to be traded: bought for a fee from agents and made to work for months without wages in order to repay the agents’ and employers’ costs in bringing them in. Then the youngsters of that society, who were nursed by women whom they were taught to regard as servants and maids, grow up accepting the normality of women who were ‘advertised’ in brochures and newspapers being brought home by their parents to do all sorts of domestic chores.

In July 2004, Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical 110-page report on domestic workers, documenting the abuse and exploitation that Indonesian women suffer at each stage of the employment process. Many domestic workers are never paid their full salaries and have little chance of redress. Indonesian women, many of whom left everything behind to find money inMalaysia to bring home, often go back without their rightful salaries while everyone else in the process (their local recruiters, their Malaysian agents and the families who ‘employed’ them) makes money out of them.

Releasing the report, LaShawn Jefferson, HRW’s Women’s Rights Division director, said that Indonesian domestic workers are treated like "second-class humans". At the moment it may be an exaggeration of the general situation, but the increasing reports of abuse and of apathy towards this phenomenon are slowly making this description true.

Having a maid has ceased to be a status-symbol of the rich. Today in Malaysia an Indonesian maid can be "acquired" and be available for 24 hours a day within the confines of the home for a sum of little more than RM370 (US$100) a month. Even in Malaysia, where the cost of living is much less than in the Gulf states or in Europe, it is a paltry sum and does not compensate for the kind of work a maid does. But this means that the demand for maids is not affected by social and financial status, and therefore contributes to the increase in "maid agencies", with all the abuses that go with them.

Today it is not uncommon to see an Indonesian maid tending the gardens of Malaysian homes, or carrying shopping-bags or a small child on a weekend trip, or even washing the car almost every morning before her employer leaves for work. If the employer has an incapacitated person in the house, the maid will do all the dirty work. She will normally get up before dawn and prepare breakfast or clean the house (part of the training she got before being sent to her new ‘owner’). Because she is confined to the home, it is no surprise that a maid normally works sixteen to eighteen hours a day. The situation does not raise eyebrows except of a concerned few, thanks to the indirect indoctrination that a ‘maid’ is someone who is expected to serve others, not one who does work to be compensated with a salary or who should be treated as part of the family.

Since the late nineteen-eighties, and especially since the short economic boom in the nineties, Malaysia and Singapore have demanded millions of workers from neighbouring countries, the bulk of whom come from Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines. As a result, a whole new industry involving agencies and middlemen has come into existence, dealing in the export (from the source) and import (at the destination) of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers, both men and women. They do the kind of jobs usually shunned by the young in most developing countries, whose economies rise suddenly only to plunge again, and which depend almost entirely on cheap labour for plantations, construction sites and factories.

The impact of this sudden economic boom on a country like Malaysia is not unlike that of western industrialisation, when more wealth and jobs meant more women being forced to leave their homes, or in most cases obliged to work eight hours or more a day away from home because of their high school and tertiary education. This means that their childcare and day-to-day maintenance of the household has to be done by maids, thus fuelling the influx of thousands of Indonesian and Filipino women. These maids may be mothers, teenagers, daughters or single women who have left their own families thousands of miles away to work and send home much-needed cash.

Local human-rights group as well as politicians are partly guilty of the lack of publicity about these migrants, who now probably number two million, including those who do not possess documents and are therefore ‘illegal’. The public apathy about such blatant abuses of human dignity makes such a cause unpopular, especially for the many foreign-funded NGOs, which prefer to champion issues such as the need to maintain a ‘secular’ federal constitution, the ‘right’ to kiss in public, and other agendas that tend to undermine the culture of this Muslim-majority country. But the situation is not hopeless. Tenaganita, an NGO whose director, Dr Irene Fernandez, still faces charges of ‘false reports’ for her role in exposing the savage treatment of Bangladeshi ‘illegal immigrants’ by authorities in 1996, is one organisation that puts enormous effort into highlighting abuses of migrants, especially female workers.

Almost all of these abuses are suffered by Indonesians, most of whom are Muslim. Despite Malaysia’s claim of being a model Muslim nation, there is no serious law that governs or stipulates the rights of a Muslim domestic worker if she is employed in a non-Muslim home, for instance. Many cases have been reported of Muslim maids being forced to handle pork and dogs, or prevented from performing daily prayers. However, this does not mean that she is secure in a Muslim home; there are countless cases of abuse, whether emotional, physical or financial, that involve Muslim culprits too. Muslim NGOs as well Muslim politicians and Islamic activists, shy away from highlighting, let alone championing, the rights of their abused sisters, preferring instead to concentrate on popular issues and rhetorical flourishes.

The Indonesian domestic worker usually suffers in silence, unlike her Filipino counterpart. The Filipino maids can now depend on their government’s involvement, thanks to pressure from Philippine lobby groups and their decades of experience in dealing with the abuse of their citizens in the Middle East. But to whom does the Indonesian maid turn? She is deliberately not informed of her rights by her recruitment agents, and coming from an utterly poor family, in many cases without any formal education at all, she is usually reluctant to make any complaint that might complicate the problems which she faces in a foreign land, and which she will have to face when–and if– she returns home.

There have been countless cases of many kinds of abuse: denial of freedom of movement to socialize, mental and physical abuse, torture, forced malnutrition and starvation, even rape, all of which are almost always hidden from the media and from public scrutiny, except for a few severe cases. When a maid-abuse case does emerge into the limelight, xenophobic voices, cite isolated cases of maids who abuse their employers or who commit crimes, as if to say, "this is what they do if they get the opportunity, so ..."

Sometimes a domestic worker is made to work in a launderette, in a restaurant or in a grocery, as well as doing domestic work, but is only paid the wages of a domestic worker. "Though employers know that they are violating the work permit, they seem to be confidently acting unscrupulously. After all, the conditions of work are not stipulated anywhere. And neither is domestic work recognized as work in any law or regulations. This non-recognition of domestic work as work has opened wide doors for abuse, exploitation and treatment of domestic workers as maids, servants or slaves," says Dr Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita, who has repeatedly called for a separate law to cover domestic workers.

The latest memorandum signed by the rulers of Indonesia and Malaysia may be the first step towards eliminating at least some abuse of maids. Employers are required to sign personal contracts with their maids, stipulating the wages agreed by the two parties. However, it does not recognise the minimum wage of RM500 (US$135) demanded by human-rights and labour activists in Indonesia. It also fails to address other issues, such as the non-payment of salaries for maids during their first four months, because they are held to have to pay with their labour the cost of bringing them in. The memorandum now stipulates that the maids are to be paid a quarter of their wages during these months.

More important, however, is the task of effecting a shift in the popular perception of the domestic worker as a commodity, which is going to be herculean. When the Prophet, upon whombe peace, was sent with the message that all humans are equal under God, he had to undertake this task in the face of powerful slave-masters among the Arabs. Clearly, hundreds of years after Islam prohibited slavery in all its forms, such a paradigm shift is still wanting. Slavery stubbornly lingers in many a modern society, whether it is cleverly disguised, as in the ‘outsourcing’ of jobs by Western multinationals to poor countries, or openly practised, such as in the second-class treatment of millions of poor workers in the oil-rich Gulf states (seeCrescent International, May 2006).

In the case of Malaysia, it is a task complicated by the demand for such workers because of rapid economic growth and a situation where thousands of jobs have emerged to entice women into venturing outside their homes for financial gain. The question remains whether the demand for domestic workers is not the artificial ‘need’ of a spoilt and self-indulgent society that is unable to accept in practice that all human beings are created by God as free and equal. This point should be understood regardless of what justifications are used by the modern slave-traders to disguise the real nature of their business in our age.

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