It’s murder

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Another life is lost, as yet another migrant worker dies after being tortured. The situation is serious. The right to life is threatened as violence and abuse in various forms escalate, warns Irene Fernandez.

Tenaganita is aghast with the statement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein that the death case of Mautik Hani – being the first of its kind in the country (NST, 28 Oct 2009).

Mautik Hani, a domestic worker from Surabaya, died on 26 October 2009. She was so brutally and severely abused by the employers that her body could only succumb to death. According to reports, she was kept locked in the toilet for days until a new domestic worker, who felt a stench coming from the bathroom, found her. Hani’s backbone and right wrist were broken, her body was bruised, her face swollen, and a wound on her right leg so severe, her bone was visible.

It is not the first of its kind in the country. As Malaysians, do we remember or have we forgotten the case of Nirmala Bonat, who was severely abused, in 2004. This year alone, on 24 May, another Indonesian domestic worker died in Petaling Jaya after sustaining severe injuries to her head and body as reported by the Jakarta Post. In June 2009, Siti Hajar was subject to torture by her employer that included starving, beating and scalding with boiling water and following that, the Indonesian Government placed a ban on Indonesian domestic workers.  Before that, in March , another case of abuse involving an Indonesian domestic worker named Siami in Segamat, Johor who had worked five months for her employer.  She was scalded with hot water, struck with a rotan, punched and kicked by her employer.

Tenaganita has received more than 400 calls, handled 273 cases with over 2,184 human rights violations committed by employers and the recruiting agencies during the last three years. The cases are increasing: during the last one month, Tenaganita  received more than 10 cases of domestic workers who were physically abused, raped, not paid their wages, denied off days and had passports confiscated by their employers. Children as young as 14 years old are domestic workers working 16 to 22 hours a day.

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The Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur stated that each year they handle and shelter at least 1,000 cases of domestic workers. The other embassies like Philippines, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India also have handled many cases of abuse of domestic workers from their own respective countries.

Are these not enough statistics for us and for the government to move into swift preventive action?  The forms of abuse, torture and exploitation are incredible but real.  Its long overdue and we must stop being in a state of denial or more precious lives will be lost.

Out of the 273 cases, what shocks us is that not one case of abuse and violence has gone to court. Police investigations are sluggish, court systems inaccessible, and processes drag on endlessly. Often, the victims drop the cases out of weariness, and go home as they no longer can continue their life of trauma and indefinite waiting. The possibilities of justice are distant and inaccessible.

From the cases mentioned, it becomes clear that the authorities and enforcement agencies including the judiciary punish the victims. The onus of proof of being legal is on the victim while the controls are with the employer or the agent. We then protect rapists, abusers and irresponsible employers. We condone violence. We nurture trafficking in persons and create an environment for slavery like practices. We see the numbers grow, we watch the statistics swell, and we close our eyes as the perpetrators
walk away without any guilt.

The Home Minister, instead of reducing the death of an innocent human being – a worker whom we Malaysians demanded for to meet our needs – to an insignificant issue, should pull up his socks and conduct open and serious investigations into violence and abuse faced by domestic workers and why the roads to justice are shut down.

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In fact, it is clear that the above form of intense rights violations bring about a bonded labor with intense servitude and debt bondage that constitutes trafficking in persons.The situation and the trafficking of women and children in domestic work will continue if we do not work for change.

There are deep concerns over the system of placement and conditions of work for domestic workers. For many years, Tenaganita has stated over and over again that it is only when rights of workers are protected through laws; when domestic workers are  recognised as workers, that employers, agents and Malaysians as a whole can ensure respect and dignity for domestic workers. The statutes and the legal process cannot and must not exclude domestic workers.

This form of persistent and intentional discrimination of women from the more marginalised groups, speaks volumes of how we respect persons and ensure their dignity. We have ratified Cedaw (The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) and have not lived up to our commitment and accountability.

We welcome Human Resources Minister Dr S Subramaniam’s announcement  that domestic workers in Malaysia will be given a paid day off every week and be allowed to keep their passports during their stay in the country.  This move will definitely help in reducing the current forms of abuse.

But globally, the experience shows that only when rights are protected and guaranteed in the statutes of the country, will violence and exploitation be drastically reduced.

Malaysia has also passed the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act and labour trafficking is part of its definition.  We have been placed in tier 3 for the second time by the US government. The report clearly stated the vulnerable conditions of domestic workers that bring about servitude and slavery-like practices.

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We definitely want to change that scenario and we hope the Home Minister takes cognisance of it. We must change our laws, redefine domestic work as work and not as ‘servants’ in the employment act.  We need clear standardised contracts for all domestic workers, attached to the employment act for effective enforcement. The one day off must be implemented without delay.

The source countries have equal responsibilities to protect the rights of their nationals especially migrant workers. They must ensure that the domestic workers do not enter into debt bondage and rights are guaranteed before they leave through bilateral agreements and when in employment.

We do not want to see another death of an innocent domestic worker in
Malaysia.

A domestic worker is a human being.  She is a woman who needs care, warmth, love and respect, so she can live a life of dignity. She is here because we need her. It is only fair and just that she is treated with dignity and respect, not only by every individual employer but by the government of the day as well.

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