They are domestic workers – not maids or helpers

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Photograph: AMMPO

It is high time that training should be provided not only to domestic workers, but to Malaysian employers as well, says Linda Lumayag.

As of March 2017, about 132,55 foreigners held temporary work permits as documented domestic workers in Malaysia (see Table 1), a slight reduction from 141,969 in August 2016.

Table 1: Foreign domestic workers holding temporary work permits by country of origin

No.

Country of origin

Number of workers

(March 2017)

Number of workers

(August 2016)

1

Indonesia

91,175

96,531

2

Nepal

65

63

3

Bangladesh

142

137

4

Myanmar

94

102

5

India

892

909

6

Pakistan

41

38

7

Philippines

36,317

38,860

8

Vietnam

480

621

9

China

91

155

10

Thailand

314

333

11

Cambodia

2,096

3,147

12

Sri Lanka

832

1,053

13

Laos

17

20

Total

132, 558

141,969

Source: Ministry of Human Resource Malaysia, 2016, 2017

To guide potential and future employers, the Ministry of Human Resources and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently launched the first ever document of its kind: Guidelines and Tips for Employers Employing Foreign Domestic Helpers.

This publication is a product of a collaboration between Malaysian employers of foreign domestic workers and advocates. It is divided into three sections:

  • recruiting foreign domestic helpers;
  • employment practices and establishing a positive working relationship with your foreign domestic helper; and,
  • issues related to communication, culture and training.

The three sections are critical areas of the employment process involving a third party who are non-citizens of Malaysia and whose civil and political rights can be tremendously difficult to exercise.

In the first part, employers are reminded on how and in what way they may recruit foreign domestic helpers, by going through legitimate recruitment agency channels.

The second part spells out the in-situ challenges of having a foreign domestic worker in our homes and the ways employers are able to strike a good working relationship with the helpers especially over issues like a weekly day-off, illegal possession of the worker’s passport, availability of a room for privacy, provision of regular meals and medical insurance.

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The third section emphasises the need to be mindful of the cultural practices of workers.
The format is simple and easy to comprehend as it is presented in a Frequently Asked Questions format.

This document is a step in the right direction – a welcome government initiative – considering the numerous cases of abuse and exploitation of domestic workers. It is useful especially for Malaysian employers who are unsure of their expectations as employers of foreign domestic workers.

A sample question-and-answer that you can find is this:

Do I need to give my foreign domestic helper a day off every week?

The simple answer to this question is “YES”. A weekly rest day is stipulated in the contract of employment. This will ensure that your foreign domestic helper stays healthy both physically and mentally and is able to carry out all the tasks assigned productively and efficiently.

That said, I would like to highlight a few things which I believe should be considered in this document.

They are workers, not ‘helpers’

Firstly, there is the perennial use of the word helpers to refer to domestics in government-published material. Domestics work for employers and therefore they should be called employees or workers, rather than the classic labels as helper, auntie, servant or maid.

Definitely, they are workers in the strongest sense of the word as the kind of work they do is able to liberate Malaysian women citizens from the drudgery of domestic work and therefore participate in the national labour force.

So how can the social-reproductive labour of caring, cooking and cleaning – the so-called the 3Cs – be just a “helping” kind of task without due recognition that indeed this is work? Why are the 3Cs equated to the 3Ds (dirty, dangerous and demeaning)?

To normalise domestics as merely helpers is to reinforce the impression that domestic work is not work but only an extension of non-productive labour and incidentally, only to be performed by women.

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Using the patronising term helper and sidelining the word worker reinforces the traditional notion that a woman’s labour in the household is secondary and economically insignificant.

It also clouds our understanding, giving many the idea that the issue of foreign domestic labour – especially the way Malaysians treat our foreign domestic workers – does not demand a deeper re-examination.

Glaring omission: employment agencies

Secondly, this document misses another important aspect in the employment of foreign domestic labour in Malaysian households: the role of employment agencies in the whole saga of foreign domestic workers’ lives.

In many of my informal conversations with both employers and domestic workers, they suggest that, in most cases, the employers defer their decisions to their agents. This means that decisions like the withholding of passports, the opening of bank accounts, a weekly day off or an eight-hour day for workers are somehow left to the employment agencies rather than adhering to what is stipulated in the contract.

In other words, what is equally critical in the employment of foreign domestic labour is that employment agencies need to be monitored and evaluated by the government rather than assume that all agencies are pretty good implementers.

Take for example the domestic worker’s passport. It is very clear that – as far as Passport Act of 1966 is concerned – it is illegal for anyone to be in possession of another person’s passport apart from the government that issued it or the owner of the passport himself/herself.

But the oft-repeated story is that the agency told the employer to keep the passport of the worker even during their days off. Or the worker is asked to sign a paper waiving her right to hold the passport – for “safekeeping”.

If the worker is making this decision not to hold the passport, then there is no problem. The problem begins when the passport is used as a bargaining chip at the expense of the worker’s personal rights.

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Successful employment of foreign domestic workers at home no doubt largely depends on how employers and workers settle for a negotiated term. The rampant violation of workers’ rights, however, is often perpetrated by another stakeholder ie the employment agencies.

In conclusion, while we laud the government for doing a commendable job in producing the guidelines for employers, it is also vital to remember that another party to this equation are the employment agencies.

Ignoring or failing to see the role of employment agencies in the employer-employee/worker relationship situated in the privacy of homes prevents us from tackling the issue of abuse, exploitation and exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Malaysia.

Train the employers too

If there are employers in this relationship, then the corresponding term should be employees or workers.

Malaysia must remind itself to sign and ratify the ILO Domestic Workers Convention 189 considering that it is home to more than a hundred thousand documented foreign domestic workers from Cambodia, Indonesia and Philippines, to name a few, if it is sincere in advocating decent work for domestic workers in Malaysia.

Malaysia also needs to amend the Employment Act 1955 for the positive inclusion of domestic workers as a category of workers and to incorporate legal expressions of workers’ rights for both local and foreign workers.

Lastly, it would be in the interest of foreign domestic workers and employers if the workers can avail themselves of this document even before they leave their country of origin.

Malaysian employers too should have a copy of this document at all times. It is high time that training should be provided not only to domestic workers, but to Malaysian employers as well.

View the document (pdf file)

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