Thursday, September 21, 2006

Malaysia - Maid in Malaysia

ABC Foreign Correspondent
Broadcast: 29/08/2006


VATSIKOPOULOS: Early morning Kuala Lumpur. Indonesian construction workers are building yet another Malaysian monument. In its hurry to prosper, Malaysia has become Asia’s largest importer of labour. Most come from neighbouring Indonesia.

Across the country Indonesian maids or domestic workers are keeping house and minding children, freeing up Malaysia’s middle class to make money. Ninety five per cent of the maids are from Indonesia. Coming here to work is well within their comfort zone because they speak a similar Bahasa and most are Muslim.

Initially it was a dream come true for Maimunah Alam Shafi. She’s one of two maids working for a Malay businessman and this exclusive gated suburb is a far cry from her Kampong in Surabaya. She’s held this job for twelve years but it’s cost her the joys of motherhood.

MAIMUNAH ALAM SHAFI: I’ve been here for so long, and I have nothing. I left my kids when they were very young. I work for my kids, but I still have nothing to show for it. I’m still working continually for my children.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Maimunah Alam Shafi has sent her daughter to university and there’s two more children to educate. The hard years will continue but at least she’s safe from harm.
Many other maids in this sprawling city remain vulnerable and isolated. The lucky ones have found a way out.

Behind me at the Indonesian Embassy, around one hundred and eighty maids are taking refuge after allegedly being abused by their Malaysian employers. Most of them haven’t been paid but many have suffered physical and sexual abuse - some of it horrific. In the past three years, more than a thousand have sought refuge here, so much so that Indonesian officials have been forced to build a two storey shelter within the compound to accommodate them all.

Around sixty maids who fled to the Embassy have returned to Indonesia empty handed. Others are taking their former employers to court and they’ve settled in here as longterm house guests of the Indonesian Ambassador, Prince Rushdihardjo.

PRINCE RUSHDIHARDJO: [Indonesia’s Ambassador to Malaysia] Sometimes they lock the maids inside of the house. They are not allowed to use the telephone or anything. Sometimes they report to the neighbour or the guard or they jump from the storey and then escape to our embassy.

VATSIKOPOULOS: They all have stories of abuse to tell and many even have the scars to prove it.

DARMILA BINTI HADI SUMARTO: My name is Darmila Binti Hadi Sumarto. Age 36. I’m a maid. I come from Cilacap, Central Java. When she hit me or beat me, she shut all the doors. She was scared a neighbour would see. She did it in secret. She beat me over the head every day and when it bled she stitched it up herself. No-one else knew. When people asked, what happened to your maid, she said it was from boils.

HARIATI: My name is Hariati. I’m 35 years old. I’m a housemaid. I work for a Chinese employer. I was beaten by my boss every day. He hit me on the ear with his hand, and then with his sandal. Then he kicked me in the chest and in the stomach. Maybe sometimes I couldn’t understand his speech and that made him angry. He said I worked too slowly.

VATSIKOPOULOS: For the maids, Malaysia has been a culture shock. The Ambassador has even observed a pattern of abuse.

PRINCE RUSHDIHARDJO: If sexual harassment, it must be done by Indian ethnics. And for torture, slapping and so on, it’s by Chinese employer - while payment problems are from Malays.

WOMAN ANSWERING PHONE: DW Action line can I help you? Right. Okay so you do hear frequent screaming and yelling from the house.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Tenaganita means ‘Women’s Force’. It’s a non-government organisation that relies on tip-offs about abused maids and then sets out to free them.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Because we can use that as an evidence to get the police to go and rescue her.

WOMAN TALKING TO ANOTHER WOMAN: What date did you arrive here from Indonesia?

VATSIKOPOULOS: Indonesian maids are not only the lowest paid, employers are not legally bound to give them a day off. Irene Ferenandez set up Tenaganita fifteen years ago to campaign for the rights of foreign workers.

Is bonded labour too strong a term to use?

IRENE FERNANDEZ: No because that is the reality. If you look at the components of the case, you know when your passport is held and you’re not allowed to go out, it’s confinement, you know And when your wages are not paid and there is no mechanism for redress because she can’t leave the place of work, then it is bonded labour.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Malaysia’s employment laws don’t cover domestic workers. Employers and recruiting agents decide terms. The maids have no protection.

IRENE FERNANDEZ: We have had tremendous forms of human rights violations and abuse that has taken place. For example a number of them have been raped by their employer. We had a case of a domestic worker where not only the main employer raped her but the woman employer assisted her husband in raping her.

So how does she feel about the trial?

WOMAN: I think she needs a lot of support.

VATSIKOPOULOS: They’re talking about Nirmala Bonat. The young maid who’s become a cause celebre. A nineteen year old from West Timor whose dream became a nightmare of constant abuse. Nirmala Bonat was abused for eight months. Scalded with hot water and finally branded with a hot iron.

What was your reaction when you saw that sort of abuse that she sustained? What did you feel?

RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: Disgusted. Of course I am. And I feel that that sort of employer should not be given maids anymore.

PRINCE RUSHDIHARDJO: Firstly of course we don’t believe that a lady like the employer can do like that – not, not human.

VATSIKOPOULOS: The accused woman is thirty six year old Yim Pek Ha, a wife and mother of four. She denies committing the abuse. Two years after she was rescued, Nirmala Bonat is still at the embassy’s shelter waiting for the trial.

NIRMALA BONAT: I saw my friends coming back to the village from Malaysia and they brought lots of money with them. I wanted lots of money, so I had to come here. At first I was hit and later she poured hot water over me. After that she pressed an iron to my body and she beat me all over. I had been beaten on the head, and didn’t want to get my hair wet because there was still a cut on my head. Then she got hot water and poured it over me.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Tell me about the ironing incident.

NIRMALA BONAT: She took the clothes that I had ironed out of the cupboard and said I hadn’t ironed them properly. And she told me to iron them again. She said she’d show me how on my body. I couldn’t bear it, but I couldn’t fight her.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Did you struggle?

NIRMALA BONAT: It was painful and hot, but I couldn’t fight her. If I fought her she’d do it again. If I even cried she’d hit me again – iron me again.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Did you tell anyone about the abuse?

NIRMALA BONAT: There was no one.

VATSIKOPOULOS: The case is continuing and won’t be resolved for some time yet. There’s considerable scepticism in Malaysia about the case but the business of supplying maids goes on.

ANGELA LIM: (IN AGENT’S OFFICE) Are they all medically fit?

SULEIMAN ABDULLAH: Yeah, I think they already have their…

ANGELA LIM: Oh they have done their medical check-ups.

SULEIMAN ABDULLAH: … pre-medical check ups in the country of origin yeah.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Angela Lim is looking for a new maid. She’s a businesswoman, busy and a mother of two.

ANGELA LIM: I’m looking for somebody who can cook. First priority is cooking. Second will be housekeeping.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Suleiman Abdullah’s agency has supplied her with maids over the years but the last one ran away after only a month and Mrs Lim says the Bonat saga unfairly blackens employers.

ANGELA LIM: I don’t think so that we Malaysians are that unhuman because we are all working parents. We have families, we have kids in the house and we don’t do such thing to the maid. Sometimes they can’t take the pressure and they intentionally abuse themselves to get sympathy.

VATSIKOPOULOS: She says she was ironed on her chest and on her back.


VATSIKOPOULOS: How can you iron your back though?

ANGELA LIM: No I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s ironed on the back. Iron is only the front. The iron she do it in front. At the back I think she used steel metal to hit her back but all this I think, well these people… if they want to do it they can do it.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Indonesian psychology student, Mohammed Iqbal has been counselling the maids and he sees a different side.

MOHAMMED IQBAL: I don’t believe that. I want to say Nirmala is well. She has a good mind. She couldn’t possibly have tortured herself.

VATSIKOPOULOS: He’s also been interviewing them for his Ph D thesis. It’s on the abuse of these women.

MOHAMMAD IQBAL: When they haven’t been out of their houses for years or spoken to anyone apart from their employers who might be from a different ethnic group like Chinese or Indian, they have trouble speaking Indonesian again. They’ve lost their Indonesian personality, and all meaning in their life.

VATSIKOPOULOS: It’s Sunday morning and no wonder the Filipino maids are happy. Unlike their Indonesian sisters, it’s their day off. They also earn much more. Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister says that’s justifiable.

RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: You see with the Philippines, they have already stated in their law to say that if you take our maids, this the minimum wage. With Indonesia, no.

VATSIKOPOULOS: So really the onus is on the Indonesians to do this?

RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: Yes. They’ve asked, but we’ve said no, because you see, we’ve got 320 thousand Indonesian maids in our country - big, big number and if we say, you know, that there is a fixed wage for them our employers – Malaysians - will say no, no, no. Some say, I can’t afford to pay this.

VATSIKOPOULOS: The Bonat case forced Malaysia and Indonesia to negotiate better conditions for the maids. Bluntly though, Indonesian women won’t get the same rights as Filipinos.

Why shouldn’t the Indonesians be able to get the same for their workers?

PRINCE RUSHDIHARDJO: Because the quality of our maids and the Filipino maids is different. The Filipino they speak English. They can watch the children… and receive the telephone… everything to be done by the maid. But not our maids. They’re only cooking and cleaning, so they don’t have any bargaining position.

VATSIKOPOULOS: As for earning a day off.

RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: No, I do not think that maids should be given a day off.


RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: Yeah I don’t, I don’t.


RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: Because it is very difficult. You see, you work as a maid in the house. You know, you’re working in the house. Most of the maids that work, they are part of the family. That’s how Malaysians accept maids here you see? You know, we go shopping together with the maid. You go to the shopping centres now and you see a lot of them bringing their maids along going shopping and that…. that’s their day off. Otherwise you would tell the maids you can take a day off…. you know, as far as Indonesian maids are concerned that’s very very difficult.


RADZI SHEIKH AHMAD: Because there are so many of them. There are three hundred and twenty thousand of them here. There’s so many of them you know and then can you imagine them going out and it would create a lot of problems.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Indonesia could do much more to protect its citizens. Workers rights though are clearly less important for Jakarta than the billions of dollars sent home by workers abroad. And then, there are the twenty-four million unemployed Indonesians to think about. So there’s not much prospect of change. Not least because changing the national psyche may prove difficult.

Malaysian Government policies favouring ethnic Malays has created deep resentment among other races. The rash of maid abuse cases highlights a behaviour called ‘compensation’ where some employers unhappy with the system take it out on their maids. Psychologist Mohammed Iqbal has been investigating this issue.

MOHAMMED IQBAL: The compensation theory in Indonesia says if we’re not happy, or don’t like someone or are angry with them and we can’t express that anger with them then we take it out on other people around us. This points to why so many Chinese employers are acting violently against Indonesian maids.

IRENE FERENANDEZ: This nation is going to get a backlash. You are going to have families bringing up children who will believe it is normal to abuse, to treat others inhumanly and therefore what I foresee is we will only increase violence in our society if we do not address the problem today.

VATSIKOPOULOS: Had these maids ended up in Singapore, Taiwan or Hong Kong they would have been better protected by the law. They’d even have a day off. Ironically it’s in the comfort zone of a like minded country that they’ve suffered the worst betrayal.


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