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Malaysians Miss Indonesian Hired Help

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Mar 15 2012 (IPS) - Ideally, Malaysia’s affluent households could meet their need for domestic help by tapping on Indonesia, a large country with linguistic and cultural similarities – but Jakarta has placed a ban on its nationals working as domestics in the neighbouring country.

Indonesia imposed the ban in June 2009 following a spate of horrendous abuses perpetrated on its domestic workers by Malaysian employers, including serious assault and rape.

With Indonesia transforming into a rising economic power in recent years that is able to feed its people and provide them employment, there is little chance of it lifting the ban.

That leaves Malaysia with little choice but to turn to other impoverished countries in Asia to meet a current need for 500,000 live-in domestic workers, though there is little sign that the abuse is going to stop.

An attempt to import workers from Cambodia ran aground last month after Cambodian opposition legislator, Mu Sochua, exposed an alarming rise in abuse and exploitation of Cambodians already working as domestic workers in Malaysia.

Mu Sochua, a former minister for women’s affairs, had sought to engage the Malaysian government on the issue, but failed. She then successfully persuaded the Hun Sen administration to freeze the sending of young Cambodian women as domestic workers to Malaysia.

Mu Sochua highlighted the case of a 15-year-old Cambodian domestic worker, Choy Phich, who is alleged to have died from abuse at the hands of her employers while working on Penang Island, last November.

“Malaysia has become known as a dangerous place to work for domestic workers,” says Irene Fernandez, executive director of TENAGANITA, a non-government organisation (NGO) that works with migrant workers.

“Recent media reports of domestic workers being beaten, raped and locked away for days without food and severely abused have reinforced this belief,” she told IPS.

“There is no legal framework for employing domestic workers in the country…the crux of the issue is that the Employment Ordinance treats them as servants and in a master-servant relationship with their employers and not as workers,” she said.

“As workers in a legal framework they have many rights, as servants they are at the mercy of employers,” she said.

The Malaysian government has not remained a mute spectator. In 2009, it booked employer Hau Yuan Tyng, 45, with assaulting Indonesian domestic worker Siti Hajar, allegedly with a hammer, scissors and boiling water.

But the damage had been done and passions that rose in Indonesia over Siti Hajar’s case, and that of other battered women, proved to be the last straw for Jakarta.

An editorial on Mar. 11 in the semi-official New Straits Times newspaper urged its readers to forget about getting domestic workers from Indonesia.

“After nearly three years of a supply cut of Indonesian domestic workers…one would have thought Malaysians would accept the reality by now: Indonesian maids are not coming anymore,” the editorial said.

“Stop day dreaming, live in reality and find some other solutions,” the editorial said.

But, instead of improving living and working conditions and providing a legal framework to protect migrant labour, the Malaysian government is looking to countries like China and Sri Lanka for cheap and pliable domestic helpers.

The vast majority of Chinese and Malay families that need domestic helpers are reluctant to hire Sri Lankans because of language and cultural differences.

Workers from China are plenty but Malay families are squeamish about hiring them. Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese families are reluctant for fear of developing complicated relationships with workers from China.

Women from China generally work as bar hostesses, masseuses and even as sex workers. Many are known to be entering the country in the guise of language students.

Malaysians prefer Indonesians as domestic workers and are willing to pay unscrupulous agents, in both Malaysia and Indonesia, as much as Malaysian ringgit 10,000 (3,290 dollars) for a suitable worker.

Last December an attempt was made to bridge differences through a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to be signed between Malaysia and Indonesia that seeks to hike monthly wages to 350 dollars with a day off every week.

The two countries agreed to improve conditions for Indonesian maids, but Jakarta said it would revoke the ban only after a minimum-wage increase, among other things, was negotiated.

But, the MoU states that the passports of Indonesian domestic workers may be “held” by employers for “safe keeping” and employers may withdraw money from a jointly-operated bank account.

“These are sticking points why Indonesia refuses to lift the ban,” said Jeffrey Foo, president of Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies known as PAPA.

“Until these issues are sorted out we just have to wait for Indonesian maids to arrive,” he told IPS. “The cost structure in the MoU is still disputed by Indonesian agents.”

Fernandez says it is indicative of Malaysian “arrogance and impunity” to always want the upper hand in “employer-domestic workers” relationships.

As Malaysia haggles and waits, Indonesia announced this week a ‘Domestic Worker Roadmap 2017’ under which it wants to ensure its young women are treated like other workers while working abroad.

The Indonesian government wants to ensure that its workers, about 500,000 of whom leave its shores each year on average, earn a minimum wage, get a day off and work only fixed hours.

“Malaysians, on the other hand, want slaves to do their household chores, look after their children and clean their houses, among other things,” Fernandez said.

“Unless they are willing to treat domestic workers as human beings and respect their right to decent work and adequate rest, they will always be looking to the next vulnerable country to exploit,” she said. For now, Indonesia has opted out of that list.

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