Day 14: The Abuse of Domestic Workers in our Homes

Posted on 08 December 2000

The Abuse of Domestic Workers in our Homes

A recent phenomenon in Malaysia is the increased reports of foreign domestic worker abuse by employers. At WAO, up till October 2000, there were 12 Indonesian women who sought shelter at our Refuge. These women who came into the country seeking employment as domestic workers (maids) told us of their horrific tales of abuse, which includes physical, mental and sexual violence.

Why do foreign domestic workers, who are many consider part of a family, helping the family housework and caring of children, the old and sick be subject to abuse?


Factors Contributing to Abuse of Domestic Workers

Social Isolation of Foreign Workers

The social isolation of foreign workers and the lack of support systems create a situation in which the worker is completely dependent upon the employer. Foreign workers often come from remote villages and have little training or preparation for living and working in a different culture. They also face difficulties communicating in a foreign language. Many Indonesian workers, who make up the majority of domestic workers in Malaysia, come from villages in Java and do not speak Bahasa, much less English, very well. Their lack of familiarity with Malaysian culture (and sometimes urban culture as well), and their inability to communicate effectively increases the worker's dependency on the employer, who must help them to negotiate an unfamiliar city and culture. For example, domestic workers may depend upon the employer to help them open bank accounts or send remittances home.


Language Difficulties

If the worker misunderstands or is unfamiliar with certain words and instructions, this is used as an excuse for physical abuse. For example, in one case documented by WAO, a worker was beaten for bringing blue cleaning liquid instead of green cleaning liquid to her employer. However, in the worker's language, the word for "green" and "blue" are the same, and so she was not able to distinguish the difference between the two liquids. In another example, an Indonesian worker misunderstood her employer and brought a "mangkuk" instead of a "manggu." She was beaten for her mistake. Because of their language limitations, workers are not able to explain misunderstandings to impatient and insensitive employers.

Employers and agents often use the language difficulties faced by domestic workers against them. The workers have no input on the formulation of their contract, and may not even be able to understand the language of the contract. If the worker does not even know what is contained in her contract, she is not aware when the contract is breached and cannot lodge a complaint.


Confinement to the Home

Foreign workers' isolation is magnified when they are confined to the home and denied access to a telephone. The workers are frequently not allowed to visit friends or entertain guests on their days off. They are sometimes not allowed to write letters home, or the letters are censored by the employer. Their contact is severely restricted with people other than the employer and his family. The workers have no outlet to express themselves or enjoy social activities with their peers. This can lead to depression and frustration on the part of the worker. The worker also has no support or assistance from friends if she is in an abusive situation. Many times the worker cannot even go out of the house to let someone know that she needs help if the employer is abusing her.


Perceptions of Foreign Workers

The negative perceptions of foreign workers that many Malaysians hold contributes to the frequency and severity of abuse cases. Domestic workers are viewed as culturally inferior and less than human. As such, they are not deemed deserving of the same respect and consideration given other human beings. Based upon an analysis of media stories on domestic workers over the past year, many Malaysians view foreign domestic workers as corrupting influences in society.

A survey of media articles between September 1997 to September 1998 revealed some of the negative perceptions of foreign maids that prevail among Malaysians. The articles surveyed included opinion polls and letters written by readers on various issues pertaining to foreign maids.


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

In a letter written to the New Straits Times on March 11, 1998, an employer expressed frustration that maids frequently run away. In another letter dated March 2, 1998, an employer complained that on two occasions, foreign maids that he had hired ran away "through no fault of his own." Finally, in another letter to the Star dated August 15, 1998, an employer told of how she hired a maid, who subsequently ran away. Then employer claims she and her family underwent a great deal of stress as they were forced to hire three separate maids over a period of a few weeks. Newspaper accounts are filled with horror stories such as these that portray the employer as a victim to the untrustworthiness of domestic workers. It is believed that domestic workers, at the first opportunity, will run away without a thought given to the suffering of the employer. The underlying assumptions feeding this perception is that domestic workers are lazy and don't want to work, and therefore they run away the first chance they get. Never do the employers examine their own behavior as a contributing factor to the situation.

"Maids have lots of boyfriends/sleep around/are diseased"

Another common prejudice about foreign domestic workers is that they have many boyfriends and have numerous sexual liaisons. This perception is often used to justify abuse or confinement of maids. When WAO contacted the agent in one abuse case, the agent stated in response to the alleged abuse of the maid by the employer that the maid "had a lot of boyfriends." In a letter to the New Straits Times dated September 12, 1997, a former employer stated that it was desirable to gradually phase out foreign maids so that "no more sexually transmitted diseases will be brought to our homes." Foreign maids suspected of sexual activity can be subjected to invasive medical testing for STDs, HIV/AIDS, and pregnancy.

"Maids steal the 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 foreign maids. In another article, which appeared in the Sun on May 17, 1998, Michael Chong brought to the attention of the press eight cases since 1996 in which husbands married their former maids. This is a small number of incidences compared to the abuse cases of foreign maids reported in the media. An article that appeared in the Star on September 28, 1997, stated that women often came home to find their husbands "sitting very close to the maid at the dinner table or while watching television."

"The foreign maid's culture is inferior to Malaysian culture and her influence will corrupt the family"

The cultures of the foreign maids, who are mainly Indonesian and Filipina, are seen as inferior to Malaysian culture. 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 foreign maid, this may lead to a rift between child and parent. In an article proposing educational courses for foreign maids, National Unity and Development Minister Datin Paduka Zaleha Ismail stated that "the failure to educate maids may result in children inheriting the culture of the maids." The Minister went on to add that this may result in "an increase in social problems among children as well as widen the gap between children and their parents."

Note:This essay is largely based on WAO's Position Paper on FDW written and researched by Ingrid Hofmaster, edited and revised by Ivy Josiah, July 2000.


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