OPINIONThinking Allowed

Modern-day Slavery is Alive and Thriving in Malaysia

By Mariam Mokhtar

Twenty-one-year-old Indonesian, Adelina Lisao, who was allegedly abused by her employers, died in the Bukit Mertajam Hospital on Sunday, February 11. A concerned neighbour had heard shouting from the house every day and had also spotted bruises on Adelina, who had to sleep, for two months, on the porch beside a Rottweiler. They notified the Bukit Mertajam MP, Steven Sim, who tried to help Adelina by visiting her employer’s house.

Adelina’s employers refused to cooperate and told Sim to mind his own business. This did not stop him from attempting to help Adelina by lodging a report with the police.

The police were shocked when they saw the bruises on Adelina’s head and face. They noticed chemical burns on her limbs, which had become infected. Adelina was immediately sent to the Bukit Mertajam hospital, but she died the following day.

Tenaganita volunteers who met with Adelina, said that she was so petrified by her ordeal that she was unable to talk about her abuse. The post mortem results showed that she was anaemic and had died of multiple organ failure.

On Wednesday, February 21, a 60-year-old woman, Ambika Shan, was charged with Adelina’s murder at 67, Medan Kota Permai, Taman Kota Permai 2, Bukit Mertajam, about 4pm on 10 February. Her 36-year-old daughter, Jayavartiny Rajamanickam, was charged with illegally employing Adelina, who did not possess a valid pass, at the same place, between March 2017 and February 10.

The offence, under Section 55B (1) of the Immigration Act 1959/63, carries a maximum fine of RM50,000 and a maximum of 12 months’ jail, or both.

A few years ago, 24-year-old Cambodian, Mey Sichan, died after being starved by her two Malaysian employers. At the time of her death, Mey weighed 26kg, this is less than the economy class baggage allowance on MAS flights overseas.

Mey’s killers received a paltry 10-year jail sentence, after they appealed against the death sentence. Perhaps with good behaviour, her killers will be released early.

The lenient sentence for abusing and killing maids, in Malaysia, is not a deterrent. Will the same happen in Adelina’s case? How many more deaths do we need before stiffer sentences will deter others from committing similar vile crimes?

Several hundred thousand foreign women come to our shores to help take care of our children, cook for our families, and clean our houses, cars and gardens. In many cases, maids become surrogate parents for those who are too busy to spend time with their children. Maids permit Malaysian women to pursue their ambitions and their careers.

So, how many more deaths will it take to prick our consciences, before we demand that enforcement, and stiff deterrents are imposed, on those who choose to treat these women worse than animals?

Aegile Fernandez, of the NGO Tenaganita, wrote about the lack of outrage by Malaysians, over these deaths? She is right. Where is our collective grief? Why do so few demand that our authorities act to stop more inhumane acts?

Many individuals think that because they have forked out RM12,000 to procure a maid, they are justified in treating their maids however they please. Our laws are so lax that many employers get away with abusing their maids, physically, mentally and sexually.

The Indonesian women who respond to adverts by local employment agencies, to work as live-in domestic workers overseas, bid their families farewell and often do not know what to expect when they arrive in Malaysia.

Many are delighted with their new employers, but a good number work and live in appalling conditions, endure loneliness and suffering, because they are in debt and need to earn money to send home to their families.

Many return to Indonesia with physical or mental scars. Some return home, in a box.

Foreign women who come to Malaysia as domestic workers are often exploited. They work from dawn until close to midnight. Some perform two jobs. Having taken care of the children and house in the morning, they are then taken by their employers to serve in their business premises.

Many maids are treated with contempt, from the time her employer sets her eyes on her. Most, if not all, have their passports confiscated, not for safe keeping, but more as an ‘insurance’. The employers do this to try to deter them from leaving the house.

“It is like living in a prison”, said one maid. Although she accepted that she was not in Malaysia on a holiday, her trust in her employers faded when she found that the letters from her family, had been opened. She was not allowed to call home and once, when she wanted to return for her mother’s funeral, was told that it was inconvenient, as it would clash with Hari Raya.

In October 2013, the late executive director of Tenaganita, Irene Fernandez, said that more than 90 percent of migrant domestic workers in Malaysia toiled for over 12 hours per day, averaging between 14 to 18 hours of work, with some managing only four hours of sleep per night.

She said that data compiled from helping around 2000 domestic workers, over an eight-year period, revealed a depressing situation and she warned, “The pattern of abuse is increasingly brutal and becoming life-threatening.”

It is widely acknowledged that many maids are pinched, shouted at, or beaten by their employers and their employers’ children. Some allege that they are only paid at the end of their contract and say that their wages are docked, even for minor damages.

Many do not have a proper place to sleep and are forced to work during illnesses. Others say that their employers are insensitive to their religious needs. Muslim maids are forced to handle pork, or bathe the family’s dogs. Christian workers are denied time off to attend church on Sundays, or have a small altar of the Virgin Mary in their rooms.

Not all women who leave Indonesia are desperately poor. Some are helping other family members settle a debt, while others leave to escape disputes with other relatives. Most, however, are attempting to finance a new home, save for their children’s education or pay the medical expenses of a sick relative.

So, what will it take to make more Malaysian employers treat their maids with respect and common decency?

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