More than exercising the right to a weekly day off is the right to enjoy the space outside the employers’ homes and to act “normally” away from the gaze of the employer, says Linda Lumayag.
In one of my Sunday rounds meeting migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur, especially the foreign domestic workers, one case caught my attention.
This foreign worker had been in Malaysia for a year and she was not allowed to have her day off, her passport and mobile phone were kept by the employer, and a copy of her employment contract was confiscated by the agent right after she landed in the country. She ran away and is now looking for a job.
Ever since Malaysian households have become dependent on foreign domestic workers to manage their homes, there has never come a lull when domestics workers celebrate their right for a day off in a week.
The early years of the Mahathir era, when full industrialisation was the main driving force for national economic development, triggered a deluge of domestic workers across national borders. These foreign women came upon national “invitation” via a policy re-orientation – in the sense that, without them, local Malaysian women , who once played the major role in social reproduction in the household, would not be able to participate in the labour force unless someone would take over their domestic responsibilities.
Indonesia and the Philippines were the main pillars as far as providing the much-needed domestic help is concerned. More than 15 years down the road, we see new entrants in the domestic workers’ market. We now see foreign women from Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India and Vietnam who joined the ranks of unskilled labour in urban cities in Malaysia. Does that mean the wider the catch, the better the deal for domestic workers?
One of the prickly issues that domestic workers face is the issue of a day off every week, usually on a Sunday. This is to give domestic workers time to rest, to meet friends, to find spiritual refuge, register for informal education, or to send/remit money home. These are just some of the many activities they can do; otherwise, they can decide to hole up inside their room the whole day without having to worry about whether they have carried out those boring menial and repetitive tasks.
There are domestic workers, though, who feel that a weekly day off seems expensive; so usually they end up working for two week-ends and insist that they be paid for it and enjoy the other two week-ends outside the employer’s home.
Why is it difficult to allow foreign domestic workers a decent day off? What heeps employers from giving them time to be away for a few hours? Why is a day off a mere option for domestic workers? Why is it not to be claimed as an obligation of Malaysian employers?
In my years of dealing with migrants issues since the late 1980s, when a group of Filipino domestic workers began the campaign for a weekly day off, the right to a weekly day of rest has been always violated. It is high time that Malaysian employers respect the right to a weekly day off even if they say that it is not stipulated in the employment contract.
Contract substitution has been a dubious practice in Malaysia meaning that while the domestic worker, the employer, and the domestic worker’s country representative (through the Labour Office) sign a tripartite agreement to hire a foreign help, there is another contract duly initiated by the employment agent in Malaysia that is prejudicial to the interest of the domestic worker. Malaysian middle-class employers are usually professionals and educated, and they are aware of it.
In some cases, workers are asked to sign a blank paper, or the contract is in Bahasa Malaysia and the worker is unable to comprehend the details of the provisos. One of the missing provisos in the second contract (the one they have signed in Malaysia) is the weekly day off, and employers insist that the existing contract does not specify anything related to rest days.
No wonder when domestic workers arrive in Malaysia, one of the things that is confiscated is a copy of the so-called tripartite contract agreement. This is to deter thinking domestic workers from pressing for a weekly day off the moment they start work.
A domestic worker once told me, “Employers tend to forget the fact that, you see, they are already out of the house from Monday to Friday, and, yet, they still want to go out on Saturday or Sunday shopping, hanging out at the mall or meeting friends. How much more for us who are imprisoned in the house every single day (to want to go out)?”
Some employers also become very “legalistic” about the whole issue of whether they will allow their domestic workers a day off, saying that the employment contract does not specify it, except for those coming from the Philippines.
By the way, it does not also mean that all Filipino domestic workers enjoy their weekly day off because it is stipulated in their employment contract. Observations abound that many Filipino workers are restricted from leaving their employers’ homes from three to six months. Many of them find it difficult to come to terms with separation from their family and friends. They sense it is either a “make-or-break” period. Tough ones will survive the ordeal, others simply buckle, run away or demand that they be sent back to the agency house.
Some local employers would say, “Never ever give your new domestic workers a chance to take a day off especially when they are new. They will learn a lot of tricks and they will also run away if they find boyfriends.” This seems to be the common narrative of employers.
Some kinder employers, however, are apprehensive about allowing their domestic workers to “enjoy“ their day off since they are still not familiar with the place. Some employers, in fact, also think that domestic workers do not deserve a day off as they are paid handsomely.
I do not discount the fact, however, that some foreign domestic workers enjoy a relative degree of freedom, but, as they said, “Ee also went through hell before this. It is a matter of getting the trust and confidence of your employer so that he/she will allow you to go out.”
In my view, this is where the issue lies: that enjoying a weekly day off is determined by sheer luck, which means that if the employer is good, kind, compassionate and understanding, the domestic worker can go out and exercise relative freedom. But if the employer is strict, stingy and manipulative, the domestic worker has very limited options and the most dehumanising would be to work without rest.
Therefore, a legal framework has to be put in place to include domestic work as a category of labour and accord rights and obligations to not only foreign domestic but local domestic workers as well.
It is high time for the position of domestic work to be recognised as professional work, worthy to be mentioned in the Employment Act 1955 and in other national labour-related instruments. It is time for Malaysian employers to re-evaluate their view on foreign domestic workers if Malaysia wants to be seen as a nation with humane employers in this part of South East Asia.
Domestic workers who stay on, serving for many years in one or two households, are privy to the tensions and dynamics that occur in Malaysian households. They hold the key to issues pertaining to household dynamics, husband-wife relationships, marital discord, the upbringing of children, and children’s anxiety about their parents.
The terms of reference of domestic workers is no longer confined to the menial tasks of scrubbing toilets or washing the plates. Over the years, as they become familiar with the people they are working for, their “job scope” is widened as they play the role of tutors, school guardians, event managers and marriage counsellors to employers. One chilling thought is the reality that in some cases, children under their care may share their dreams and aspirations with the domestic workers rather than their parents. In return, some parents may use the domestic workers as a moderator or arbiter when communication breaks down between children and parents.
More than exercising the right to a weekly day off is the right to enjoy the space outside the employers’ homes, the freedom to meet friends from other countries, and to act “normally” away from the gaze of the employer. With or without a legal framework, domestic workers must be recognised as productive workers in Malaysia who assume the social reproductive roles of its citizens.
Linda Lumayag is a lecturer at the University of Malaya whose expertise includes migrants’ issues