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An Uphill Battle Against Abuse And Torture

Contributed by Anonymous on Wednesday, July 01 @ 22:16:11 CDT

Foreign Workers
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA 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.

Her 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 stand.

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 domestic helpers.

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 potential employers.

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 migrant workers.

"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 rise."

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 opposition lawmaker.

"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 China.

A recent survey by The Star, a daily newspaper, revealed that over 75% of employers were against giving a weekly rest day to domestic helpers.

"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 recruitment.

"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 exploitation.

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." (END/2009)

 
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