A Failed ‘Domestic’ Diplomacy

KUALA LUMPUR – By half past five every morning, Mukaromah is already up and about, preparing the children for school. Once she gets them out the door, there is washing to do, as well as housecleaning and cooking the meals for the day. But even when all that is done, Mukaromah usually does not choose to rest. Instead, she indulges in her multi-level marketing sideline or helps out at Migrant Centre, a non-government organisation that focuses on the concerns of Indonesian migrant workers. If she has some spare time, she reads books on personality development, motivation, and entrepreneurship. Recently, Mukaromah has even begun writing for a magazine intended for Indonesians toiling here in Malaysia.

The 25-year-old high school dropout undoubtedly has a lot to share with the magazine’s readers, since she herself is an Indonesian who is working here as a domestic helper. The children she looks after are not her own and the house she cleans belongs to her employers. But she nevertheless looks like she is enjoying the life she is currently living. After all, she has a roof over her head, decent quarters, a wage of 800 ringgit ($236) that is deposited straight to her account by her employer each month, and ample time to pursue her own interests, including calling up her family back in Indonesia or having fun with friends.

If only all domestic helpers here could share Mukaromah’s luck. Unfortunately, it appears that her experience is more an exception than the rule among maids in Malaysia. In fact, a recent torture case involving an Indonesian domestic helper has had Indonesia asking Malaysia to revise a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) both governments had signed only four years ago.

“There are three main points in the revision,” says Dai Bachtiar, Indonesian ambassador to Malaysia. “First, we ask that passports, which are currently in the hands of the employers, be given to the workers for them to keep themselves. Second, the worker should be given one day off in one week, which can be compensated based on the mutual agreement between the employer and the worker. Third, each party, Indonesia and Malaysia, should protect their interests respectively.”

“Malaysia should protect the interest of the employer, Indonesia should protect the workers,” he says. “The employer should not pay too much, the worker should not receive too little. This is the one that takes quite some time to negotiate because it involves the private companies that provide workers.”

Part of informal sector

Domestic helpers make up some 15 percent of Malaysia’s foreign workers, or about 299,355 people. Of this figure, 230,141 (77 percent) are Indonesians while more than 10,000 are Filipinos and 8,713 are Cambodians. Domestic work is part of the so-called informal sector. Because domestic or household work is not considered a profession, there are no existing regulations for it in either Malaysia or Indonesia.

Aegile Fernandez, programme manager of the Kuala Lumpur-based rights group Tenaganita, says that unpaid wages is the most prevalent problem in cases concerning foreign domestic helpers – Indonesian and otherwise – in Malaysia. A United Nations 2010 human trafficking report on the country also cites “deceit and fraud in wages” as among the problems encountered by migrant workers in Malaysia, along with “restrictions on movement… passport confiscation or debt bondage, which are practices indicative of trafficking”.

For migrant workers employed in households, physical abuse is yet another serious risk they face. Malaysian authorities themselves say an average of 50 abuse cases are reported annually among Indonesian domestic helpers here, according to a 14 July 2010 story run by the Jakarta Globe. But, the English-language newspaper says, Indonesia’s own yearly tally is as much as 1,000 cases of maltreatment and abuse of its citizens working as maids in Malaysia. In June 2009, a frustrated Jakarta put a freeze order on Indonesians bound to work as domestic helpers in Malaysia until, it said, its citizens’ rights could be guaranteed of protection in this country.

The issue has been an irritant in Indonesia-Malaysia relations, which are normally sensitive at best. Though at peace with one another, the two nations have had tense moments in their dealings with each other for decades, with the bones of contention ranging from heritage claims to border disputes.

Some observers say that one factor that has helped both countries keep tempers in check and exercise restraint in dealing with the other is their membership in ASEAN. And now that the regional grouping seems determined to establish a “community”, observers say member countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have all the more reason to elevate talks on concerns like domestic helpers from the bilateral level to a multilateral one. At the very least, most (if not all) ASEAN members have a stake in the issue, either as a source country or a receiving nation.

Two ASEAN members, in fact, have already readied a framework towards the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers. But the draft has yet to get the nod of the rest of the group.

“Actually, for the ASEAN agreement (on migrant workers), Indonesia and the Philippines have already prepared a draft,” says Vivian Chong, foreign domestic workers programme officer of the regional network on migrants’ rights CARAM ASIA. “Undocumented workers have been included in the draft. They also want to protect the workers’ families. No objection from Thailand. But Malaysia and Singapore objected. Malaysia did not want to protect non-documented workers who it considers as illegal.”

“Our argument is that non-documented workers are still workers,” says Chong. “As long as they work, they have the rights of a worker. If you work, you should be paid, whether or not you have documents.”

Questionable provisions

Some activists, though, wonder why the Indonesian government had agreed to the terms of the 2006 MOU in the first place, especially when it contains a stipulation allowing employers to keep the passports of the help they hire. Alex Ong, Malaysian country representative of the Indonesian NGO Migrant Care, also comments, “It is puzzling that a lot of points in the Indonesia-Malaysia MOU run counter to the Malaysian constitution. For example, Malaysian labour laws do not allow a 100-percent cut of the worker’s salary, but that is what happens to domestic workers in Malaysia. Why? Moreover, the Malaysian Employment Act clearly states that workers have to be given one day off, but why do domestic workers have to work seven days? The Malaysian Immigration Act admits that the passport is the right of a country and holding the passport of a worker is legally wrong. Why, then, is this allowed in the MOU? It not only violates the law, but also challenges the authority of a (sending country), including Indonesia.”

A domestic helper in Malaysia typically works seven days a week, with each workday stretching to as much as 18 hours. Because the duties are undefined, a helper could find herself being put to work in her employer’s shop, aside from being expected to do household tasks. For this, an Indonesian helper is paid between 400 ringgit to 600 ringgit ($118 to $177) a month – which she would start getting only after completing six or seven months with her employer. The sum she would have earned during this period is supposedly equivalent to what an employer spends in getting a helper from a recruitment agency. Amnesty International observes that when this amount is factored in, the monthly salary of an Indonesian domestic helper who is bound by a two-year contract actually comes to about 300 ringgit to 450 ringgit ($83 to $133).

Many Indonesians who work here as domestics are often unschooled and fresh from the countryside. Although they are supposed to undergo requisite training before they are deployed overseas for work, Indonesians bound for Malaysian households usually have little idea on what to expect in this country, much less what their rights are. Indeed, they are even often clueless about the existence of an Indonesian embassy in Malaysia, and how this could play a part in helping them out if they ever encounter problems.

It is no wonder then that many Indonesian domestics are easily convinced by unscrupulous employers who tell them that getting a lump sum after the end of a two-year contract is better than being paid monthly. Another variation of such an “arrangement” is a partial payment every month, with the supposed understanding that the rest of the helper’s salary would be deposited in a bank account opened in her name. By doing so, the employer’s argument usually goes, a helper is kept from spending the money and would therefore be able to bring a big amount home to her family.

Far too often, however, such employers are unable to come up with the necessary sums once payment time comes. Fatima binti Udang, for example, went unpaid for the 14 years she worked as a domestic helper here in Malaysia. She is now just 30, which means she began working as a maid in this country at 16. She says she had two employers. The first one gave her salary to the recruitment agent, with the apparent understanding that Fatima would receive at least some amount. But she never did. After her two-year contract was up, Fatima went to work for another household. She says there she was unpaid for 12 years, with her employer repeatedly telling her that she would be arrested and put behind bars if she dared run away. But Fatima chanced upon a TV programme that showed an Indonesian migrant worker who received protection from the Indonesian embassy. Emboldened, Fatima decided to seek help herself.

No wages, no food, no rights

Nur, meanwhile, was able to endure five years of having no wages. After that, however, she tried to kill herself in front of her employer, who then agreed to send her home to Indonesia. Nur was given RM1,000 ($300) and was promised that she would be sent the rest of her money once she reached her homeland.

But Nur never even made it to the airport for the return flight home. Instead, her employer sent her to another agent who left her without food for two days. As Nur tells it, she and six other women were being taken to another place when they heard that there was an ongoing police raid in their destination. They then had to spend the night in a forest, again without any food or water. The next day, Nur says, she and her companions were made to board a ship. She says she was so weak by then that she fainted and fell overboard. By some fluke, those who fished her out of the water turned out to be Indonesian migrant workers.

Nur, however, has yet to return to Indonesia. For the last two years, she has been staying at a shelter put up by Tenaganita, waiting for the case she filed against her employer to be finished.

Forty-one-year-old Siti Maemunah’s experience has been far worse, even though she has been here for a comparatively shorter time than Nur and Fatima. Just two months after she began working here, she was hit with a cooking pot, had hot water poured over her, and somehow got her arm broken without her even realising it until much later. Whenever her employer left the house, she was locked in; the door was left unlocked only during the times her employer was home.

It was during one such time that Siti was able to sneak out the back door and scale the fence. With the help of another Indonesian domestic helper, Siti was able to make her way to the Indonesian embassy. She has had to have an operation for her injured arm, which is now shorter than the other. Siti says she also never received any salary.

For sure, with their passports held by employers, Indonesian domestics are hardpressed to leave even the most oppressive employers; being without identification papers make them vulnerable to arrest. But Malaysian authorities have been digging in their heels regarding the passport issue. One member of parliament, Dr. Siti Mariah Mahmud, offered this explanation for such an attitude: “(If) the worker keeps her own passport, it means freedom. There is no guarantee that she will not run away. No one is concerned about the rights of the employer.”

Malaysian authorities have been even more reluctant to stipulate higher wages for domestic helpers from Indonesia, with this issue reportedly stalling the revised MOU. In a statement released this May, Tenaganita Executive Director Irene Fernandez said, “Numerous discussions have been held (on the) new terms and conditions of a new MOU. Malaysia has so far agreed to a day off for domestic workers and a separate bank account. It has not conceded to a minimum wage structure. The Malaysian government’s refusal to a basic decent minimum wage shows that the Malaysian government wants to maintain acute exploitation of domestic workers in the country.”

“The Malaysian economy needs to continuously harness the labour of Malaysians and thus there is the demand for domestic helpers to fill the vacuum left when women work outside their homes,” Fernandez also said. “But this need cannot be met through exploitation that is equivalent to slavery. Malaysian families need to recognise that they need to be decent employers and treat their domestic workers with justice.”   Melani Indra Hapsari is a TV presenter at TVRI Jawa Tengah, a public television in Indonesia. She is also managing editor of Gaia Magazine, which focuses on beauty and women’s health. Tri Binarko Suselo translated the original Bahasa Indonesia pieces on which this was based.   Post script: In late August 2010, Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they were finalising the provisions in the revised Memorandum of Understanding on the employment of domestic helpers from Indonesia. But this apparently did not push through, and talks on the matter remained stalled as of early 2011.