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Domestic work is hard – so why are we so mean to domestic workers?

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We need to re-examine the way we treat our employees and ask ourselves whether our words or actions affirm their dignity, writes Cheah Wui Jia.


Orange aprons.

They seemed to be the latest fad at Gurney Plaza on Sunday, 7 October. Men and women wore them and grinned from ear to ear like orange Cheshire cats.

But these peculiar orange clad-individuals were not walking advertisements for Chef Wan’s recipes or Nigella Lawson’s kitchenware. They were volunteers manning the booths that showcased newspaper reports documenting the statistics of abuse and mistreatment of foreign maids in Malaysia.

I was at the “End modern day slavery: Domestic work is work” campaign organised by the Domestic Workers Campaign Coalition. (The coalition members are Tenaganita, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian (Jump), Migrant Ministries, Pusat Kebajikan Good Shepherd (PKGS), Archdiocesan Office for Human Development (AOHD), Liber8, and Coordination of Action Research on Aids and Mobility (CARAM) Asia).

The campaign was launched by Penang state exco member Chong Eng. Her arrival was greeted with a dramatic bang by frolicking lion dancers and an ear-splitting cacophony of pounding drums and crashing cymbals. The effect of this frenetic frenzy was an explosive mixture of the heart-warming appeal of festive nostalgia and the head-throbbing agony akin to that of a screaming rock concert.

This was highly strategic, as it instantaneously drew a swarming crowd of kaypohs. People craned their necks in bug-eyed curiosity, jostled and elbowed one another in typical Malaysian fashion and buzzed around the booths.
The campaign launch opened with a speech by Tenaganita executive director Irene Fernandez. She cited the case of a 24-year-old Cambodian domestic worker who starved to death in Penang last year, her lifeless body weighing only about 26kg when she was found.

In addition to this nightmare, last week, the High Court in Kota Bharu ordered Wilfrida, an Indonesian maid charged with the killing of her employer in 2010 – punishable with a death sentence upon conviction – to undergo bone testing and ascertain her actual age at the time of the murder. This is to investigate the allegation that she had been an under-age victim of human trafficking. It is possible that Wilfrida could have been recruited when she was only 12, her passport falsified by the recruitment agency to pass her off as an adult.

“The question is: are these isolated cases? For the last eight years after we launched the Domestic Workers Campaign, Tenaganita has handled 2000 cases of domestic workers, and from the 2000 cases, we can see that the amount … the intensity of the abuse is becoming worse.

“During the last two years, in particular 2011 and 2012, we have seen an increase in domestic workers suffering from malnutrition, about 30 per cent; 32 per cent alleged sexual abuse; 80 per cent said they were overworked, 14 to 18 hours a day, with no off-days; 90 per cent said that they did not get their wages for more than six months , and according to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, if wages are not paid for three months, it is exploitation and it is human trafficking. All of them had passports held by their employers and they were threatened with arrest. Therefore, for us, (these are) not isolated cases.”

Fernandez argued that since domestic workers are not recognised and are excluded from the Employment Act and defined as servants, employers treat them as such. Yet, because of their labour, women have been able to leave their homes and enter the workforce, with someone else taking care of their children while they are away.

“Malaysians must value their domestic workers and treat them as human beings. They are not here because they want to have fun.”

As Fernandez spoke, I recollected the memories of laughing and poking the waist of the Indonesian domestic worker who was taking care of my cousins when we were all very little. My young toddler cousin often clung to the hem of her pants whenever he bawled or kicked his legs cartoon-like when throwing a tantrum.

While my own parents never employed a foreign domestic worker to look after our needs, I recalled running around the house, imagining I was Jerry being chased by Tom, a middle-aged Chinese lady, whom I addressed in real life as Aunty Lian, and whom I endlessly terrorised on a daily basis for trivial reasons like wanting to eat ice cream instead of rice for lunch or insisting, with my princess mentality, that I wear my pink nightgown in broad daylight.

I cannot imagine the hell that domestic workers are subjected to. They are definitely not here to “have fun” indeed. Even working with employers who are sane does not preclude the reality that children are possibly annoying brats, and household chores make for a terribly unexciting routine.

While I surveyed the booths at the launch that displayed various newspaper clippings, I came across one section that focused on stereotypes and negative perceptions of domestic workers. This brought me back to the time when I was staying at a hostel occupied by students from various countries. One of my Malaysian friends had commented with a snicker, during our chat, that the new Indonesian female students “look like maids”. The disgust that was implied reflected the typical attitude that we usually adopt towards stray cats or dogs, creatures that are less human and therefore perceived as lower in worth.

Recently, Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) University student Devina Sharma posted racist comments on her Facebook about Filipinos when Miss Philippines Megan Young won the title of Miss World 2013. “Miss Philippines is Miss World? What a joke! I did not know those maids have anything else in them.” She later added, “They are less privileged everywhere! Am surprised one can win. What a joke, these people cleaning our toilets won Miss World.”
We may shake our heads at her comments, but we cannot deny that her perceptions of maids as ‘unintelligent toilet cleaners’ are shared by a vast majority of us who, on the whole, perceive working class people who perform manual labour as somewhat pitiful.

Scholar Stephanie Lawler, in her journal article ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’, speaks of how George Orwell, writing in the 1930s, remarked that the ‘real secret of class distinctions’ is defined by ‘four frightful words’ – “the lower classes smell”. It is not literal, in that it is a real or imagined smell that is being referred to, but more of how middle-class identities are disgusted with working-class existence, and their identities dependent on not being the repulsive or disgusting other.

Chong Eng, in her address at the campaign launch, pointed out that “if domestic work is recognised as work, then full-time home-makers are recognised too”. Her statement triggered hearty applause from the audience.

The campaign launch, on the whole, was eye-opening. Suffering is not purely physical. A domestic worker who is not raped, starved or beaten to death may experience homesickness. Coupled with verbal abuse from the employer (“Why you so stupid? This one also don’t know how to do?”), which is, unlike physical abuse, extremely legal, acceptable and therefore common, she may feel belittled and helpless at times.

When I was having dinner at Northam beach cafe once, I witnessed a woman at a counter raising her voice, gesturing wildly and slapping the head of her migrant employee who took orders for drinks. Maybe he made a mistake. But it was humiliation, nonetheless.

Since one is unlikely to go to jail for calling his/her own domestic worker names, it is possible that verbal and emotional abuse are rampant and unchecked. I am not suggesting that people go to jail for that. But I am suggesting that we re-examine the way we speak or treat our employees in the workplace and ask ourselves whether our words or actions affirm their dignity.

Cheah Wui Jia served as an intern with Aliran recently.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Md Mamun Niloy
23 Dec 2013 10.49pm

stop slavery

albeba s. saludares@nor suraya abdullah
albeba s. saludares@nor suraya abdullah
2 Dec 2013 11.25pm

what i dont understand is that ,how can a mother leave her household and care of her children to a helper day and night??good mother need to find a job to supplement her husband’s income,but she as a mother should be looking after her kids once she’s home,,to have her maid get some rest and to face another hard day ahead,but her kids sleeps with the maid?and as children,they used to wake up in the middle of the night,,even wee hours in the morning,,,of course,,maids are humans too,employers need rest and claim she cannot manged her kids,,how about the maid,then?is she not needing rest too,?and the fact that she is very sick now ,agonizing with swollen back and persistent coughing,,yet the employer cannot be bothered,,what kind of a human being can do these cruel things to another human,??

najib manaukau
14 Oct 2013 7.49am

There should be a legislation forbidding anyone, found to have abused their maid , must never be allowed to hire a maid again ever to begin with this kind of abusive employers should never be given the right to hire one !

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