Migrant Domestic Workers

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The Growing Problem of Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse in Malaysia
Factors Contributed to Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse
Attitidues Held by Some Malaysians on Migrant Domestic Workers
What WAO is Doing?


The issue of migrant domestic worker abuse is becoming one of growing concern in Malaysia. Recently several severe cases of maid abuse have come to the attention of WAO. The media attention that these cases attracted served to highlight the fact that the abuse of migrant domestic workers is prevalent in Malaysian society.

The vulnerability of the migrant domestic worker’s position as a resident in the home of her employer, the lack of legislation to protect the migrant domestic worker, and the tendency of state and local policies to safeguard the interests of the employer rather than the migrant domestic worker all combine to create a situation in which abuse is likely to occur.

In addition, the negative perceptions of migrant domestic workers held by many Malaysians implicitly condone the abuse of migrant maids. This paper proposes to examine the scope and frequency of migrant domestic worker abuse as well as the factors that contribute to the occurrence of abuse.

A selection of case studies from WAO will be looked at in detail and suggestions made for best practice guidelines for dealing with cases of migrant domestic worker abuse. Finally, solutions will be proposed for dealing with the wide scale abuse and mistreatment of migrant household workers.

Population of Migrant Workers in Malaysia

The migrant worker population is a significant labor force in Malaysia. According to Human Rights Watch, in 1995 Malaysia became the largest importer of labour in Asia, taking in over a million workers from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Despite the trend over the past year to restrict migrant workers and hire local labourers, migrant workers continue to enter Malaysia in large numbers.

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The Growing Problem of Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse in Malaysia

According to Human Rights Watch, in 1995 Malaysia became the largest importer of labor in Asia, taking over a million workers. A National English Daily, The Sun, on 6 April 2000, reported that the Immigration authorities estimated over 2 million migrant workers in Malaysia, of which more than 160,000 are hired as domestic helpers.

WAO has done an analysis of media coverage of migrant domestic worker abuse (MDWA) which reveals that abuse of migrant domestic workers is a recurring phenomenon in Malaysian society. The abuse occurs on several different levels; psychological, physical and economic, and is of growing concern.

Migrant domestic workers have been subjected to slapping, beating, pinching. They are often overworked, rising at 5 am and working into the night. Migrant domestic workers can be malnourished, given poor quality food in small quantities. Mental torture is being denied contact with your family and friends, or being driven into the forest at night and threatened with abandonment. Salaries have been withheld. Two years spent living in a small cage-like enclosure in the garden, let out only to work, is one domestic worker's experience.

Scope and Frequency of Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse Cases

An analysis of the media coverage of migrant domestic worker abuse cases reveals that MDW abuse is a recurring phenomenon in Malaysian society. A media survey of the English language newspapers conducted by WAO revealed that between July 1997 and August 1998, there were nineteen cases of migrant domestic worker abuse in Malaysia. Within this thirteen-month period, at least one case of abuse occurred each month.

Of the nineteen total cases of abuse, eleven involved physical abuse and assault in varying degrees of severity. There were three cases of sexual abuse, including rape and attempted rape by an employer, two cases of confinement, and seven cases of withholding passports and/or wages by employers.

It is important to note that in all nineteen cases, physical abuse often coincided with other forms of abuse, including withholding passports and wages. Fourteen of the reported cases involved abuse by the employer, while in four of the cases the agent was the abuser. In only one case, the perpetrator was unknown. 

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Factors Contributing to Migrant Domestic Worker Abuse (MDWA)

Migrant domestic workers are especially vulnerable to abuse by their employers due to some factors below:

  • Coming from a different country faraway from their family and friends, they are socially isolated. They may be confined to the employer's home, often with little outside contact. Letters may be monitored, telephone calls curtailed or banned. Language difficulties can add to miss-understandings and feelings of social isolation.
  • There is no standard, fair contract of employment or adequate legislation to protect migrant domestic workers. Domestic work is often de-valued and domestic workers are not considered as 'proper' employees. Contracts for domestic workers frequently view the worker as property of the employer to be used as the employers wishes, rather than as a professional worker hired to do a specific job. There is a tendency for state and local policies to safeguard the interests of employers rather than migrant domestic workers.
  • Many Malaysians have negative perceptions of migrant domestic workers which contributes to the frequency and severity of abuse. Foreign domestic workers are often viewed as culturally inferior, sometimes 'less than human', and not considered as deserving of the same respect and consideration given to other human beings.

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Attitidues Held by Some Malaysians on Migrant Domestic Workers

Attitudes of some Malaysians to migrant domestic workers, revealed through letters and opinion polls in the press, from a survey of media articles between September 1997 to September 1998:

"Maids" take advantage of employers by running away at the first opportunity

Newspaper accounts are filled with horror stories such as these that portray the employer as a victim to the untrustworthiness of domestic workers. The underlying assumption feeding this attitude is that domestic workers are lazy and don't want to work, and therefore run away at the first chance they get. Never do the employers examine their own behavior as a contributing factor to the situation.

"Maids" have a lots of boyfriends, sleep around, are diseased

In a letter to the New Straits Times dated September , 12 1997, a former employer stated that it was "…desirable to gradually phase out maids so that no more sexually transmitted diseases will be bought to our homes."

Employers use their assumptions about their domestic worker's promiscuity to justify confinement of the domestic worker to the home. One agent thought that 'having a lot of boyfriends' was a valid reason for abusing a domestic worker.

"Maids" steal husbands

This perception is related to the notion that domestic workers are promiscuous and flirtatious. In a letter to the New Straits Times dated September 12, 1997, the author lists "husband snatching" as one of the dangers of having "migrant maids". In another article which appeared in the Sun on May 17, 1998, Michael Chong of the MCA Bureau brought to the attention of the press eight cases since 1996 in which husbands married their former migrant domestic workers. This is a small number of incidences compared to the abuse cases of migrant domestic workers reported in the media.

The migrant domestic worker's foreign culture is inferior to Malaysian culture and her influence will corrupt the family

Employers fear that their children will pick up aspects of another culture and will end up speaking with an Indonesian or Filipino accent. The concern was also expressed that, if the children are influenced culturally by a migrant domestic worker, this may lead to a rift between child and parent. The National Unity and Development Minister, Datin Paduka Zaleha Ismail has said, "…the failure to educate migrant domestic workers may result in the children inheriting the culture of the migrant domestic workers [this may result in] an increase in social problems among children as well as widen the gap between children and parents."

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What WAO is Doing

Since its inception in 1982, WAO began receiving several isolated cases of domestic worker abuse. The first case, in 1988, was of a Filipina migrant domestic worker who had been raped by her employer. Since that case, at least one MDW per year has sought refuge at WAO for physical abuse. In 1999 alone, WAO provided shelter to 11 migrant domestic workers who had been abused, and provided counseling and advice to more. Shelter and support is vital. Once employment is terminated, either by the worker or the employer, the woman loses her permit to work in Malaysia and is unable to financially support herself.

Many women feel very discouraged to seek legal redress for abuse, which currently can take years. There is no specific law in Malaysia on violence against migrant domestic workers unlike to Domestic Violence Act, which now gives some protection to wives.

WAO now have a series of protocols to handle FDWA cases, covering:

  • filing complaints with the police, Welfare and Labor Departments
  • processing applications with the Immigration Department,
  • gathering medical reports, and other evidence of abuse,
  • assisting women in obtaining lawyers and initiating civil and criminal suits,
  • lobbying the media for case coverage and advocacy.

We have also insisted on obtaining a lawyer to hold a watching brief of the criminal proceedings of abuse cases.

In 1995, after a series of severe abuse cases, WAO began documenting the women's experiences, using the press to highlight the problem of FDWA. On the 3rd March this year, we met with the Ministry of Human Resources and submitted our proposals for a Model Contract of Employment and a Singapore sample of a Guideline for Employers of migrant domestic workers. WAO is committed to pursuing these initiatives with the authorities.

We are lobbying for specific changes in law and policy. We want:

  1. The implementation of a Fair and Standard Employment Contract between workers and employers, establishing workers rights and employers responsibilities.
  2. Special permission to work from the Immigration Department for domestic workers who are awaiting completion of investigations or going through trial, to be able to work in another home in order to earn a living
  3. Arrival orientations for migrant domestic workers to be conducted by the Ministry of Human Resources and Labor Department on their rights, including providing workers with emergency telephone numbers and other resources for dealing with abuse.
  4. The publication of A Guide for Employers, by the Ministry of Human Resources, outlining employers responsibilities, application processes and a list of offences and their penalties under law.

We also want changes in attitudes towards migrant domestic workers. We will continue to lobby the press to raise the agenda of migrant domestic worker rights, and to educate the public on the rights of migrant domestic workers - and that abuse is a violation of her human rights and punishable by law.

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