131000 people demand that Malaysia recognises domestic work as work

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The continued absence of a human rights framework to guide the discussions and policies pertaining to the recruitment and employment of domestic workers will only further perpetuate this institutionalised form of slavery, says Irene Fernandez in marking International Migrants Day.

Domestic workers head to Malaysia
Domestic workers head to Malaysia

This International Migrants’ Day, we remember the hundreds of thousands of migrant women who raised and continue to raise millions of Malaysian children; who care for the elderly; who clean our homes and clothes; who cook and who carry out the countless chores that need to be done so that our lives are managed and made all the more easier.

On this Migrants’ Day, we ask that you think about the 300000 domestic workers in Malaysia, migrant women who remain largely invisible and yet essential to our homes and to our country. We urge you to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of women in our homes whose lives continue to be unprotected and who are deprived of the enjoyment of dignity and basic rights; women who in the year 2012, are referred to as ‘servants’ under Malaysian law, who are denied even a single day off a week for rest, who are forced to work months without pay so that employers, brokers and agents can profit from their labour, who are controlled and silenced because we do not recognise them as human persons who deserve to be treated as we wish to be treated ourselves.

On this International Migrants’ Day, we remember the over 100 domestic workers whom we rescued and who came to us within the first 10 months of this year, women who have faced over 500 forms of violations at the hands of employers and agents. We remember too the thousands of domestic workers Tenaganita has assisted over the years, and the hundreds of thousands more who remain unidentified, silently enduring the violation of their rights at the hands of a system and culture that treats them as less than workers and that refuses to recognise their womanhood and identity as a human person.

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We remind the Malaysian government that it is duty-bound to ensure that no person should be subject to inhumane treatment. The forms of abuse perpetuated against domestic workers are not isolated in nature or accidental. In the cases Tenaganita handled in 2012, all the passports of the domestic workers were held by their employers, they were not given a single day off for rest, and none of them had a contract signed directly with the employer. Many were overworked and made to work in two different premises; at the home of the employer and outside the home and over 50 per cent of domestic workers did not receive their monthly wages.

Various forms of violence were also present in most of these cases, with 56 per cent of the domestic workers suffering physical abuse and 15 per cent of the workers being sexually abused. In a country blessed with abundant food, 35 per cent of the domestic workers rescued were badly malnourished as a consequence of being deprived of proper food. These forms of rights violations are deliberate and intentional. All the domestic workers showed signs of mental anxiety and uncertainty while a number of them showed signs of depression. Tenaganita’s investigations also show that almost 50 per cent of those recruited to work as domestic workers were below the age of 21, which is the minimum legal age for domestic workers to work in Malaysia.

In a number of cases, recruitment agents were used by employers to further threaten the domestic workers into remaining submissive and from questioning the actions of their employers. Based on our investigations, some of the domestic workers said that on arrival at the office of the recruitment agency, they were completely stripped of clothing and searched. All information in the form of cards or notes related to contacts of their embassy and any NGOs they could contact in Malaysia (including Tenaganita) was confiscated by the recruiting agent.

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These patterns of abuse have been highlighted repeatedly by Tenaganita for more than a decade, and yet they continue to remain the violent reality of domestic workers in Malaysia. There is no legal institutional framework to protect their rights. The Malaysian government failed to recognise domestic work as work when amendments were made to the Employment Act recently despite urgent calls by labour rights activists, the women’s movement and the Malaysian Bar to correct this critical flaw in our legislation.

Malaysia abstained in voting for the adoption of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on domestic workers, which states among other points that “domestic workers are entitled to the same working conditions as other workers. These include limited working hours, minimum weekly rest of 24 consecutive hours, no payment in the form of payments in kind exclusively, fair terms of employment as well as decent working conditions which also include the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining”.

In the ongoing discourse on the hiring of domestic workers from Indonesia to Malaysia, there continues to be a complete failure to speak honestly and openly about the institutionalised nature of these abuses. Dismissing cases as ‘one off’ or ‘in the minority’ is not only a complete denial of the facts, but also undermines the seriousness of the issues. No person should be held in a state of slavery. One case is one case too many.

Furthermore, the discussions by sending countries and Malaysia on the recruitment of domestic workers continue to focus on ‘maximising profits’, ‘ensuring supply’, ‘minimising costs’, ‘maintaining quality control’ and ‘keeping market rates competitive’. Domestic workers through this discourse are reduced to mere commodities; tools to be traded and used in our homes. This continued absence of a human rights framework to guide the discussions and policies pertaining to the recruitment and employment of domestic workers will only further perpetuate this institutionalised form of slavery.

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In a global response to stop this form of slavery in Malaysia, over 131000 valid signatures have been collected as a petition to urge Malaysia to immediately ratify and implement the ILO Convention No.189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Today, Tenaganita delivered these petitions to the Ministry of Human Resources with the hope that we will recognise domestic work as work, ensure a rights framework for the recruitment and employment of domestic workers and that a safe environment for work is created.

On this International Migrants’ Day, the world will watch to see if Malaysia will respond to this call to stop slavery and to protect the lives, rights and dignity of domestic workers in Malaysia. We as a nation can only be recognised as a people with humanity when we shift our paradigm to recognising the human person and woman in domestic work.

Irene Fernandez is executive director of migrant rights group Tenaganita

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