Maids, Slaves or Saviours?

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by Mariam Mokhtar

Thinking AllowedNoor, not her real name, returned to Indonesia to look after an ailing relative. Several months later, when the relative had recovered, Noor contacted her former employer to see if she could return to work. The employer sent her sufficient funds to cover her expenses for the journey from her village, and flight to Malaysia. Noor’s husband took this money and told her to take the cheaper crossing by boat. A distraught Noor phoned her employer to tell her she had arrived, but not at the airport. Many Indonesian women are easy prey – not just from members of their own family who see them as easy sources of income, but also from some Malaysians, who treat them like slaves.

Many Perak households function smoothly because of Indonesian women, several businesses would have difficulty operating without them, many of our market traders and small retail shops are manned by them, and the oil palm industry relies on them. The Indonesian worker, principally the domestic maid, can be a godsend or a bearer of grief.

Recently, the Indonesian authorities sought to dissuade her citizens from working as maids in Malaysia, following the latest scandal. The warning came after police freed 105 women, 95 of whom were Indonesians, six Filipinas and four Cambodians, who had been imprisoned against their will. By day, these women worked as housemaids and had been forced to work without pay; at night, they were locked away in a building.

Lessons have not been learnt despite a ban on Indonesian maids in 2009. Many of the women who seek employment in Malaysia face an uncertain future with little or no provision for their safety and well-being. A few endure poor working conditions.

Reports of Malaysian employers offering low wages, abuse and rape have deterred many Indonesian women. Although the 2009 ban has been lifted, thousands of women are believed to have been lured by promises of well paid jobs and entered the country illegally. Despite many press reports, Malaysian authorities have continued to fail to protect these women.

For years, the NGO Tenaganita has criticised the treatment of migrant workers, but instead of investigating their complaints, the Malaysian government has harassed its leader and accused her of sedition.

The ill-treatment of maids is not a new phenomenon, but our authorities are slow to resolve the points raised by concerned NGOs, the maids and employers. Complaints against maid agencies have increased, but the failure to investigate these companies has prompted cries of collusion in a major cover-up exercise by the authorities and agencies.

Thirty years ago, most domestic help was sourced locally. With education and industrialisation, many Malaysian women from the rural areas preferred to work in factories, light industry and the retail trade. They cited better wages and the ability to socialise as opposed to life as a live-in domestic, where freedom was curbed, wages were low and they had to toil from sunrise to midnight without decent breaks, or any days off.

Many employers say that having a maid frees-up their own time thus enabling the wife and mother freedom to work. Today, some households treat their maids as one of the family and years after they have parted company, both employer and employee keep in touch, paying visits to each other. In a few cases, the employers have become a godparent to the maid’s children.

Although a maid is a blessing, the downside is that some women have become totally dependent on their maids and have become lazy people, who spend very little time with their children. In some households, children have become spoilt and pampered, and rely on the maid to do everything for them.

Every enlightening story about maids is accompanied by an equal number of horror stories. Some maids get homesick and want to return as soon as they have arrived, some are too sickly or are not interested in working, whilst others run off.

In a few households, the man of the house has taken sexual advantage of the maid, in his wife’s absence. There have been cases of maids abusing babies and toddlers. More brazen maids will entertain male visitors, when their employers are at work.

Despite all the problems, Malaysia’s development could not have happened without the help of these foreign workers. We preferred migrant workers because they are willing to accept wages which are below the cost of living in Malaysia; however, this resulted in the exclusion of many Malaysians from the lower end of the labour market, with concomitant social problems.

If migrant workers were to down tools, our businesses would stop functioning, our households would be chaotic and market traders might have to scale down or cease operations altogether.

Many foreigners, especially from the west, are appalled at the treatment meted-out to some maids. On the other hand, Malaysians feel entitled to treat the maids as they please because they have provided a wage, food and accommodation.

If we would treat maids more like human beings and not modern slaves, the incidents of maid abuse would plummet. It is all a matter of attitude.