Know Your Rights - Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse
Brenda* lives in a terrace house next to a married couple. Like many families, she has a domestic worker named Ila*, who is from East Java. Her neighbour also has a domestic worker from Java called Siti*, and both Ila and Siti have struck up a friendship. Brenda has seen Ila several times in the evening washing her neighbours' car when she comes back from work, and exchanged a few words with her. Ila seemed to her very quiet and anxious whenever she is spoken to.
One afternoon, Brenda noticed that Ila has an ugly bruise on her arm when she was out drying the washing. Concerned, she asked Ila what had happened to her. To her surprise, Ila began to weep but she refused to say a word. Eventually, she said that she fell down in the bathroom and hurt herself. Unconvinced, Brenda asked Siti if she knew anything about it. At first, Siti was reluctant to speak up. But because Brenda and Siti had a good relationship, she gradually began to reveal Ila's situation. According to Siti, her employers have frequently abused Ila physically. They hit her with all forms of objects - car keys, garden hoses, rotans, etc. - even for the slightest mistake. Ila has been confiding in Siti about her woes, but Siti does not know how to help her. In addition, Ila's employers have not been paying her any of her wages despite her having worked there in the past year. They claimed that they would pay her only after her contract of employment has ended. As a result, Ila is forced to take all the beatings and shouting for fear of them withholding her payment even then.
Brenda felt that this was a very cruel and unfair situation for Ila to be in, but she is uncertain as to how to act. She was surprised that her neighbours were capable of such callousness. They have been neighbours for many years and she did not really want to sour relationships between them. However, Brenda believes that she must do something to stop them from subjecting another person to such cruelty. What can she do?
The issue of migrantdomestic worker abuse is becoming a growing concern in Malaysia. The media attention received by some of these cases served to highlight that the abuse of migrant domestic workers is prevalent in Malaysian society. The vulnerability of themigrant domestic worker's position as a resident in the employer's home, the lack of protective legislation, and the tendency of the state to safeguard the interests of the employer rather than the worker all combine to create a situation where abuse is likely to occur. In addition, the racial discrimination in the form of negative perceptions towards migrant workers held by many Malaysians implicitly condone the abuse of migrant domestic workers.
Abuse of migrant domestic worker occurs on several levels: psychological abuse, including the threat of deportation, being thrown out of the house, verbal abuse, confinement to the house etc.; physical abuse, including hitting, kicking, cutting of hair, pinching, sexual harassment, being forced to work continuously without adequate rest etc.; and economic abuse, including arbitrary deduction of pay, retention of workers' salaries by employers until the worker returns home, working for two different families or working in the employer's business as well as home, retention of the worker's passport and other important documents etc.
All these are violations of the migrant domestic worker's rights as an employee, as well as more significantly, as a human being. Physical abuse can constitute as causing hurt, assault and wrongful confinement if her mobility is restricted beyond certain circumscribing limits under the Penal Code. These are criminal offences. Economic abuse can represent a breach of her employment of contract.
There are several things that Brenda is able to do to help Ila:
- Make a phone call to the police to lodge a report on the abuse. If she wishes, she can choose to remain anonymous and not identify herself. She will just have to provide the address of the where the alleged abuse took place. The Maid Abuse Hotline number is: 03 - 2052 0999. The police will then go to the house and interview the victim. Hopefully, the interview will be conducted without the presence of the employers. This is because the presence often would intimidate the foreign domestic worker to silence about the abuse. This may be especially if the employer is also abusing the worker economically.
- Call a women's organisation like Tenaganita (03 - 2691 3691) or WAO that works on migrant domestic worker abuse issues. The organisations would be able to help report the abuse or provide a safe place to stay if the foreign domestic worker needs shelter.
- Brenda can also lodge a complaint to the labour's office on behalf of the migrant domestic worker with regards to her unpaid wages. She must have information about the worker - where she works, with whom she is working for and the length of her employment so far - and valid documents, such as the worker's passport and working visa in order to do so. The Labour Court will mediate the dispute.
If you are an employer of a migrant domestic worker, these are a few things you should bear in mind:
- Living conditions - make sure that she has the basic necessities such as mattress, blanket, pillows and air ventilation. For her personal safety, give her a set of keys to the house and a room that can be locked from the inside.
- Working hours - ensure that she has at least 8 hours of rest per day, with adequate rest and meal breaks. If she works on a rest day, you should compensate her.
- Meals - ensure that she has three meals of adequate nutrition and quantity.
- Mobility - she should be allowed to leave the house during her rest days if she so desires.
- Duties - outline them clearly to include only domestic work in the house. This does not include body massages, working in your place of business or another household.
- Medical attention - should she need to see a doctor, ensure that she has access to do so.
- Salary - ensure timely payment of her salary each month. There should be no deduction of her salary except as expressly stipulated in the contract.
- Passport - you should not withhold the migrant domestic workers personal documents such as her passport. She should have a choice as to whether to safeguard it herself or to give it to you for safekeeping.
- Contract - ensure that the contract of employment between the both of you is fair and provides for all the matter as stated above. This will help prevent any forms of abuse, and ensure the protection of her rights as an employee and yours as an employer.
*Names changed to protect WAO's client's confidentiality.
Prepared by Jaclyn Kee
Women's Aid Organisation - 20 Years of Service to Women and Children
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail (Reprinted with permission from Sunday Mail)