By Baradan Kuppusamy
LUMPUR, Jul 1 (IPS) - Domestic helper Siti Hajar, 33, from Garut
district, Indonesia is a picture of calm as she leans against the wall
at a shelter for abused maids and dreams of returning to her village.
face, neck and chest are scarred in a horrific case of abuse. She was
scalded with boiling water, tortured and starved by her employer, a
single mother of two at a posh condominium in Kuala Lumpur.
Her employer has been charged with abuse, though she denies the charges.
"I dare not see her face to face…I am so afraid," says Siti
Hajar, who shares space with nearly 300 other abused Indonesian
domestic helpers, all desperate for their day of justice in court.
It can be a long wait given the wheel of law grinds slowly
in Malaysia, especially if you are a migrant worker and your employer
is wealthy and has a battery of proficient lawyers at his disposal.
Siti's is the third case of horrific maid abuse in Malaysia
in as many months and the outcry that plight had sparked prompted
Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, to finally take a
After suffering quietly for many years, Indonesia this week
banned Malaysian recruitment of its nationals as domestic helpers
citing frequent mistreatment of their nationals, non-payment of wages
and dreadful exploitation as reasons.
Indonesia said it will lift the ban only if Malaysia offers
higher wages, extends legal protection given to local workers, and
provides basic rights extended to all workers, like a weekly day of
rest, compensation and annual increment.
However, the decision to ban recruitment might significantly
hamper the prospects of Indonesian domestic helpers, who are desperate
for jobs as well as their Malaysian employers, equally in need of
Also the fate of some 500,000 do*****ented and undo*****ented
Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysia hangs in limbo, as does the
fate of thousands of Indonesian domestic helpers recruited this year
who were preparing to head to Malaysia.
In addition, millions of dollars paid by Malaysian employers
to agents on both sides could be forfeited, thus adversely impacting
Although the ban has sparked uproar among employers and
government officials, labour experts and human rights activists say it
is a "bold" move that was long overdue.
"We hope the ban forces Malaysia to review its regressive
and backward policies with respect to domestic helpers specifically and
foreign workers generally," said Irene Fernandez, executive director of
Tenaganita, a nongovernmental organisation that works for the rights of
"Domestic helpers work long hours and are frequently forced
to do unrelated work," Fernandez told IPS. "Often they are shared
between families and neighbours. They are the last to bed and first to
But she also expressed concerns that a total ban would fuel human trafficking of Indonesian helpers.
This is possible, Dr Fernandez said, because nearly 2 million
undo*****ented Indonesian workers are already working without valid
papers in the country’s service sector as waiters and cleaners.
"There is very little enforcement in this area. Employers
can hire illegal help and get away with it," Fernandez said. "A strong
demand, ready supply and little supervision is an explosive mixture to
fuel human trafficking."
Opposition lawmakers espouse similar concerns.
"We worry domestic helpers would go underground and work
without proper papers. Such a situation makes them extremely vulnerable
to exploitation and trafficking," said Kulasegaran Murugesan, an
"Malaysia must formulate clear and concise rules to cover
all aspects of recruitment, placement and supervision of domestic
workers," he said.
Indonesia is demanding a new MoU with Malaysia that covers
key areas like weekly rest day, better wages and legal protection as
key concessions to lift the ban on recruitment.
It wants employers to stop forcing their nationals to handle
pork and other duties like washing dogs, activities they claim are
considered derogatory by Muslims.
But Malaysian employers are turning a deaf ear to these demands, and
demand that their government recruit maids from other countries like
A recent survey by The Star, a daily newspaper, revealed
that over 75% of employers were against giving a weekly rest day to
"There is rising public pressure on the authorities to allow
recruitment from other countries if Indonesia does not lift the ban,"
Kulasegaran told IPS.
Besides China, the government is exploring the option of recruiting domestic helpers from Vietnam and Laos .
Human rights activists say it is imperative to improve living
and working conditions in Malaysia instead of changing the source of
"The nightmare of maid abuse would return to haunt us if the
fundamental weaknesses in the system are not resolved," Fernandez said.
"The pressing and urgent problems need to be resolved," he added. "This
is the priority not recruiting domestic helpers from other
countries…especially when Malaysia has the reputation as Asia’s worst
employer of migrant workers."
Every year over 1,000 maids, mainly Indonesians, flee their employers
every year because of ill treatment, non-payment of wages and
Most of the runaway maids remain in the country, work
illegally to pay off loans they had borrowed back home, living in
constant fear of arrest.
If caught they can be fined, jailed and deported.
"Some have been treated like slaves and not paid for months or
even years of exhausting work," Fernandez said. "Many still bear the
scars, scalds and wounds inflicted on them by their employers."