Domestic workers – human beings not commodities

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The application of labour laws and acceptance of workers’ rights for domestic workers would clarify the employment relationship between domestic workers and employers, writes Angeline Loh

Photo credit: freemarket.my

The perception of a maid or domestic helper varies with the ethnicity and culture of employers. What brought about this reflection was the furore over giving all maids (domestic workers) working in Malaysian households a day off. Employers raised strong objections to giving their domestic help one rest day, particularly if she was a foreigner.

Many households in Malaysia still employ women from neighbouring Asian countries as domestic help, although employment trends seem to be turning more towards domestic workers from countries other than Indonesia due to a recent embargo, drastically reducing the number of Indonesians legally coming to work as domestic workers in this country(Sunday Star, 16 January 2011).

It was amazing that employers of migrant domestic workers were so against the proposed one-day off. Also surprising was the ferocity with which employers defended what they claimed as their right to refuse that single rest day to the domestic workers caring for their homes, old people and children.

Although the fears of a working woman who has to triple up as mother, carer and wife are understandable, it also stands to reason that a domestic worker is also human and needs rest and recreation to recuperate and re-energise. The domestic worker is also a helper in the household and support for the housewife, who usually is overloaded with work almost 24 hours a day, or the working parent. From my personal experience of being a housewife and carer at a stage in my life, I know that this is by no means easy.

Nonetheless, my experience of having a domestic worker employed in our family household has been very different from many of the incidences gossiped about amongst acquaintances or reported in mainstream newspapers from time to time.

Our precious ‘amah’

My childhood in the 1960s was spent much of the time with a ‘nanny’ or amah as we called them in those days, because my mother was a school-teacher who had to spend a lot of time in her workplace. My father also worked from 8.00am to 4.00pm in a local government office. I remember seeing my mother at home only in the evenings on weekdays, on weekends or during school holidays.

So our amah played quite a large part in our day-time lives. It was she who cooked, cleaned, bathed us, made sure we got ready for school in time, packed our recess snacks and lunches and waited with us for the bas sekolah (school bus) to make sure we were safely taken to school and didn’t ponteng (play truant). She also had to give us medicine when we were ill, tend to our cuts and bruises when we fell down during play, and keep us amused when she had the free time.

We actually had a succession of amahs, not just one, although all who were employed by my parents then were local Malaysians usually of Chinese, Indian or Eurasian descent as we are non-Muslims.

The last amah we had was with us from mid-primary school until we went to work and university. She was a real jewel. I remember when I was 18, in my first job as a factory worker doing night-shift. She would wait with me near the main road at around 10.00pm until the bas kilang (factory bus) picked me up at 10.30pm to be in time for the 11.00pm to 7.00am shift at the factory in the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone. She did not want me, a young girl, to wait in the dark alone on a reasonably quiet stretch of road, as it was then. It was things like this that actually endeared her to us and made her more a member of our family than merely an employed domestic helper.

Incidentally, this big-hearted, lovely old lady was illiterate since she was young. She looked after my youngest sister since she was born. When my little sister was in Standard One or Two, our Ah Ee (Auntie) attempted to learn how to read and write numbers from her. The old lady had a fondness for playing empat ekor, ‘big’, ‘small’ numbers, or whatever they were, which were an incentive for her to learn how to read and write numbers. Her efforts to write and my sister’s attempts to teach her were quite touching. She committed a lot to memory for the rest of the time and she certainly had a very good memory. She remembered all my mother’s instructions to the letter, including how to cook dishes she was not familiar with. She would go home to her own reasonably large family in Batu Maung every fortnight for a weekend and return to us on a Sunday evening. Thus she had two days off once in two weeks.

During Christmas, which we celebrate, she would be there to help with all the Christmas preparations. In exchange, she was given days off at Chinese New Year (I can’t remember how many), since school would be closed then and my mother would be at home. When our dear ‘Ah Ee’ retired a number of years ago she would still visit us at Christmas, until a few years ago when we seemed to have lost contact with her family.

Domestic workers devalued

The domestic workers now employed in many households are foreigners from less economically developed countries and are generally treated in a different way; sadly, in a number of known cases in a less friendly and much more impersonal manner. Sometimes, in an inhuman manner, to the embarrassment of all Malaysians.

They are strangers from afar, whose backgrounds, ways of life, characters and personalities are often unknown to us. We are suspicious of why they are here. Yet due to the present shortage of local workers willing to take up these so-called 3D (dirty, degrading and dangerous) jobs, we are forced to pay a considerable amount of money to employ them to help us in our households.

Perhaps the reason some people tend to treat migrant domestic workers as non-persons is that they are completely ignorant of the reasons for the migrant worker being here in the first place. This, however, is no excuse to ill-treat or abuse a migrant domestic worker.

There are so many cases of documented and undocumented migrant domestic workers being made to work from the early hours of the morning into the wee hours of the next morning without proper breaks. The few hours sleep that they might have are insufficient for any human being to rest and re-charge to be capable of working efficiently or to keep in good health in the long term.

In cases, domestic workers are not even given proper nutritious meals and little health care. Showing signs of any illness can jeopardise their jobs sand employability. Work permits may be cancelled by the Immigration authorities upon receipt of reports from their employers, and workers may be deported without further ado. The workers do not keep their passports, identification and travel documents. Instead, either the recruitment agents or the employers holds their personal documents.

In the worst cases of abuse that hit newspaper headlines, the shocking nature of the injuries these women sustain from apparently irate employers make domestic workers’ desertion of their employers, understandable. Most employers, however, do treat their domestic workers reasonably and provide a sufficiently friendly environment to work in.

Despite this probability, foreign domestic workers are dependent on chance and Providence as to the kind of employers they end up spending 24 hours a day with, for the duration of their contracts which the recruitment agents have made with the employers.

Terms and conditions unknown

The Employment Act 1955 Section 2 defines the term ‘domestic servant’. This term is not only archaic but also totally ambiguous and seems to separate domestic workers from the category of workers as if work done within a ‘private dwelling – house’ is not work. However, including this term within labour legislation seems to imply that the Employment Act applies to domestic workers in the same way as it does to other categories of workers.

Nevertheless, in most instances, whether or not labour legislation applies to domestic workers, it is not followed or enforced. Domestic workers are still denied a day off, by and large, without any extra remuneration for working on weekends, public holidays, or night shifts. Domestic workers who are terminated, fall sick on the job or are injured are not compensated nor appear to be entitled to any termination benefits. Good employers may give a small gratuity or compensation in some cases out of compassion, but this still depends on the conscience of the employer and not the right of the worker to be compensated in circumstances where their ability to earn a living is diminished or extinguished.

Further, domestic workers have no means of redress for denial of their labour rights; criminal abuse committed against them is known only when the situation becomes completely unbearable. Domestic workers are at a grave disadvantage, working in an isolated environment where there is little opportunity for social interaction with those of their own nationality or those of similar occupation. Thus, domestic workers are denied the right to join unions or set up an association or even form small community groups that may give them support and help to resolve particular personal problems they may face while working in a foreign country.

Yet, there are faithful workers who work diligently for good employers and some have continued to be of service to their employers for more than a dozen years ( just like our dear ‘Ah Ee’).

Domestic workers are workers and long experience and training will eventually make them experts in their own right. Therefore, to nurture and preserve this pool of acquired expertise, domestic workers should be afforded the protection of our labour legislation and treated as workers, not as informal or contract labour that may be dispensed with at employers and agents whims and fancies.

The present shortage of domestic workers and the probability of domestic workers willing to work only to the end of their contracts then returning to their home countries for a variety of reasons (The Star, 16 January 2011, “Don’t count on supply of maids from Cambodia, says envoy”) makes it harder for employers to make long-term plans regarding the care of children, infirm and old people as finding a replacement for a good domestic worker is more difficult.

The application of labour laws and acceptance of workers’ rights for domestic workers would clarify the employment relationship between domestic workers and employers and reduce the emergence of ‘slave labour’ and potential criminal abuse of domestic workers.

“Domestic workers are at a grave disadvantage, working in an isolated environment where there is little opportunity for social interaction with those of their own nationality or those of similar occupation.”

Angeline Loh is an Aliran exco member.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great article….I have post this article in Cambodia Today website. I just want to sorry to post this article without asking your permission first but i really hope you don’t mind because I already given credited and linked back to your website.

    Many Thanks,

    Steven Kong

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