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Keeping domestic helpers safe

(© Otnaydur / Dreamstime)

OVER the past few years, things have not looked good for Indonesian domestic helpers in this country. Horrific cases of abuse such as those involving Nirmala Bonat in 2004, Ceriyati Dapin in 2007, and then Siti Hajar in 2009 didn’t just make the local headlines. They also raised Malaysia’s profile internationally, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Despite media attention and public outrage, the abuse has not stopped. In October 2009, Indonesian maid Mautik Hani was rescued by police from her employer’s home after being abused and locked up in the toilet. She did not survive her injuries.

Are Malaysian employers just cruel monsters? If so, then why just Indonesian maids? Why have we not heard cases of ill-treatment of and cruelty towards domestic workers of other nationalities, such as the Filipinos?

Why Filipinos fare better

Currently, there are some 280,000 foreign maids working in Malaysia. Indonesians make up more than 90%, although the numbers are thought to be higher due to undocumented workers. The remaining numbers comprise around 15,000 foreign maids from the Philippines, and between 1,000 and 2,000 from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.

It is said that on average, 50 cases of maid abuse involving Indonesians are reported each year. Indonesia, however, says 1,000 maids suffer from violence here annually.

Is it just a case of proportion? Do we hear more cases of abused Indonesian maids because of their whopping numbers in this country compared with other nationalities?

Francisco (Courtesy of Amalialisa
Amalialisa Francisco, who works for the Filipina Services Committee in Selangor, says she does think it has to do with numbers. But, she adds, it’s more to do with the age of maids who are sent here to work. “The thing is, employers think maids should know how to do everything. But some maids do not have experience, and therefore frustrations arise,” she says.

Indonesian maids are comparably much younger than Filipino ones. Hence, they are less knowledgeable and have less confidence. “Sometimes the Indonesian maids can be as young as 15 or 16, while the average age for those from the Philippines is 24,” Francisco tells The Nut Graph.

Enrico Martin, who heads the Segambut Filipino Association, says Filipino domestic workers are better able to please their employer because they are better educated and trained. He says the Filipino Welfare Resource Centre, established under the embassy’s Labour Office here, provides training in courses such as computer classes, cooking, baking and others.

“I think it is the language factor; employers do not understand what [Indonesian domestic workers] say sometimes, and vice versa. This may lead to frustrations,” Josephine Garcia, a Filipino domestic worker, notes.

Not just Malaysia

How do Indonesian maids fare elsewhere? It seems that in Singapore, cases of abuse usually involve Indonesian maids as well. One of the most infamous cases involved Muawanatul Chasanah, a 19-year-old who died after being severely beaten by her employer.

Garcia, who has worked in Dubai and Taiwan, notes that she has heard of abuse and ill-treatment of Indonesian maids even in those countries. Does this mean, then, that Indonesian workers are more vulnerable to abuse because of other factors, such as whether their government is doing enough to ensure their protection?

It was reported in January 2009 that Filipino maids in Middle Eastern countries like Jordan were reporting cases of abuse. Manila imposed a ban on sending more workers to Jordan unless the Middle Eastern nation enacted regulations to protect Filipino citizens.

It is apparent that once the Philippines government finds out about such abuses, their protective instincts fire up. This is similar to what the Indonesian government seems to be attempting now with regard to sending their nationals to Malaysia.

Elsa Watson, who now counsels fellow Filipino maids who face problems in Malaysia, says the support system for Filipino maids here and all over the world is unmatched. Indeed, there are no less than 25 different types of Filipino associations listed in Malaysia alone. These include support groups, Christian congregations, and sports associations.

“We are also taught about culture in orientation and re-training programmes, and we make an effort to understand our employers, such as learning what Muslim families expect and require,” says Watson, who has lived here for 23 years and is now married to a Malaysian.

“But the main thing is that the Philippine government really protects their maids everywhere, all around the world. And for the workers themselves, they know their rights and the law. And they will fight for themselves,” Watson said.

Employment agencies here must sign and stamp contracts with the embassy for every Filipino domestic worker brought in, with the contract stating that the maid is entitled to an off day every Sunday. This is a far cry from what Indonesian workers are entitled to. Indeed, there is no legal requirement as yet for Indonesians to be given off days.

“[Employers] must allow [the helpers] at least two days off in a month so they can also have time for themselves. After six days of hard work from 5am to 11pm, I think the Sunday off for them is crucial. They relax, make time for their friends, and even come for extra courses,” Martin, from the Segambut Filipino Association, says of Filipino domestic helpers working in Malaysia.

“Super maids”

Filipino helpers also get paid more because of their government’s lobbying. In October 2006, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration set a standardised minimum salary for all Filipino maids deployed overseas. FIlipino helpers now get paid US$400 (RM1,355) a month, up from US$200 (RM677), an increase that surprised even the Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia, Victariano M Lecaros. Conversely, Indonesian helpers only get between RM500 and RM600, or less.

After the announcement, Lecaros even urged Filipino maids to do more than just simple chores to justify the raise in their salaries and live up to their billing as “super maids”.

While both Indonesians and Filipinos work as domestic helpers in Malaysia and elsewhere, Indonesians are clearly more vulnerable to abuse than Filipinos are. Filipinos are better protected from potentially abusive employers because of a range of factors, from age and education to maturity.

But what seems equally critical is government muscle and community support. With the Filipinos, there is a clear system that ensures they are less likely to be bullied or abused. With the Indonesians, the lack of community organisation and a government that is less caring about its citizens abroad means that the abuse will continue — no less because the host country is unlikely to ensure that foreign nationals from the lower-income group are treated humanely and justly as human beings.

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6 Responses to “Keeping domestic helpers safe”

  1. Tan says:

    It is true that maids from Philippines most have high school certificates and communicate well compare to Indonesians. Besides, they are more capable and mature in handling household chores. The Indonesian agencies should instead dispatch quality maids by enrolling them for some short courses of at lease six months in their homeland. This will increase the maids’ confidence and reduce abuses. Please be mindful that abuses not are only restricted to maids alone. What about those employers’ children or family members that had been killed, injured and abused by the maids?

  2. tze yeng says:

    What about the attitude of Malaysian employers who devalue and degrade housework and the people who do it? What about their training and re-education to see it as WORK and to respect those who do this valuable reproductive function as workers? A good start is to change our language from “maids” to “domestic workers” and to uphold their rights as workers. The lame excuse about “treating them as part of the family” as the domestic worker “enjoys” benefits like trips with the family does not hold water to me at all. Imagine if, as an employee of a company, you have to spend 24/7 with the boss and attend to his/her every whim and fancy.

    Note that the Philippines govt or any govt exporting domestic workers who claim to uphold or “protect” them is not done purely out of benevolence – it is done out of a recognition of the valuable capital inflow back to their countries. And the women left in their own country in turn do the unpaid, or underpaid reproductive work of caring for the children.

  3. JML says:

    It is a sad fact in this country that many of us want the comfort and luxury of having a live-in maid, but none of the associated risks. Many maids are not allowed days off or phone calls, and are sometimes even discouraged from associating with the other maids in the neighbourhood, thus denying them even the ability to engage in human interaction with anyone other than their employers.

    The irony is, many of these measures are imposed by people who are supposedly in favour of better justice and human rights, and decry human rights abuses carried out by other countries, other people and other governments. I suppose many of us are, in fact, conditional human rights activists, willing to push for everyone’s rights, except in the case of our own employees, where it becomes rather inconvenient.

    Employers who do not want any vulnerability or risks should hire part-time maids, instead of hiring live-in maids and then infringing upon their basic rights.

  4. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that their maids are lazy. Guess what, if your boss paid you peanuts, treated you like dirt, and forced you to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, wouldn’t you try to slack off … too?

    Another issue I’ve heard is that many maids genuinely have too much free time on their hands (especially if the employer’s family is small and lives in a small flat), so the employers make them do stupid things like mopping the floor three times a day to get their money’s worth.

    I suggest we either a) set up a system where neighbouring families can share a maid (and pay her extra if appropriate of course), or b) have an au pair system like in Europe, where the maid can go to school part-time to finish her education. The latter would be especially beneficial for the younger maids still in their teens.

  5. born2reign says:

    A family with dual income and three to four children to take care of most probably needs a maid. Please don’t compare to the 1970s where a mother can raise 11 children with the father as the sole breadwinner. Try going out of your house with only RM5 in your pocket and see what your purchasing power is like.

    The government devaluing our purchasing power. I am all for NOT allowing domestic maids to stay with the employer. Clock in/out at 7am/8pm, five days a week, no problem for RM800 per month. But on the maid’s side I demand PROFESSIONALISM! No agency fees and no work permit to pay for, and no need to worry about foreign men using my master bedroom for sex.

    If the government insists on live-in maids at RM800 per month, with agency fees to be paid for by employers, then agencies must give a warranty period of 24 months, with 24-hour replacement in case of runaway or incompetent maids.

    In Singapore, Indonesian maids must take an English test as a qualification, and we all know that Singapore’s English standards for maids is better than our […] standard.

    To Hwa Shi-Hsia: How much do YOU pay your Indonesian maid? They are paid RM120 in Indonesia, but RM550-RM600 here in Malaysia. The agents do not train them at all. Yet the RM600 maids today are more [incompetent] compared with the RM300 maids eight years ago. Also, to many of them it is a FREE TICKET to escape Indonesia and run away within two months to meet their “Malaysian” relatives.

    Who is addressing the issue of maid-pinching by agents? It is the agents themselves who spoil their own industry. They are also linked to the underworld. Our Polis Diraja is certainly not bothered to arrest illegals. [I believe] most illegals are hired by Malay [Malaysian] families anyway – their attitude is why pay so much to the [intermediaries]?

    Let’s face it, Malaysia has to rely on foreign workers for our manufacturing and service industries. […] Our unqualified graduates demand basic pay of RM1,800, otherwise they stay at home and watch TV! I really wish that we have local babysitters who charge by the hour, like college students who work part-time… but these students are too rich and busy to work as babysitters.

  6. born2reign says:

    JML: Have you had your maid leaving your two kids under three years old at home alone, while she is chit-chatting at a neighbour’s house? Who shall discipline her? Can I return her to the agent with no penalty?

    Also, this maid of mine visited her lover when we were not at home, leaving the kids alone. What is your solution?

    The maid runs away with her lover … employer pays penalty and name is blacklisted.
    Sack her, and we lose our agency fees of RM4,000-RM6,000
    The maid abuses your kids … report to police and immigration, your case is pending and you cannot employ another foreign maid, so have to quit our jobs to look after your kids.

    The best solution is not to have any children. Or perhaps the government could provide paid maternity leave for 24 months until the child is able to attend school. And school shall be from 9am-5pm, like in Hong Kong.

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