Protecting the vulnerable

The Indonesian government is absolutely right to ban their nationals from coming to work as domestic servants in Malaysia until our own government is prepared to guarantee the safety and well being of these women. This is the least the Indonesian governmrnt can do to protect their people from being routinely and savagely abused by Malaysian employers. The excesses that are reported in our newspapers are a shameful reminder of our ambivalent attitude to human cruelty and suffering.

Maid abuse is not a Malaysian invention; it has, however, become an ugly hallmark of our domestic employment culture. There have been far too many reported cases of inhuman physical treatment of foreign maids to ignore. The number of unreported cases of criminal abuse is staggeringly high. What sort of society have we allowed ourselves to be turned into? We shower our animals with love and affection, and yet we cannot bring ourselves to treat those who live, while in our service, under our protection, with a little kindness and dignity. We are dealing with human beings who work under conditions of slavery, out of dire necessity, not of choice. With its own abysmal human rights credentials, we cannot expect our government to be too concerned over such trivialities as foreign worker protection and their rights in a supposedly civilised country. If we do not give a damn about how our own citizens are abused by abusive laws, I should perhaps lower my expectations as far as our vulnerable foreign guest workers are concerned.

What can we do to stop man’s cruelty to man, or in this instance, it is more likely to be woman to woman? Both the foreign maid and the local employer must be screened for suitability for a start. The employing household must be inspected to ensure that the maid will be properly housed and will work under recognised labour regulations. It is not unusual to come across maids working from five in the morning to midnight without a break, seven days a week, and three hundred sixty five days a year. Historically, the days of slavery are over but it appears that as far as our maids are concerned, they have become the 21st century inheritors of a system long dead. They are expected to endure the unendurable without a murmur.

A law for the protection and regulation of working conditions of domestic servants is long overdue. Any such law that is promulgated must include a provision requiring employers to subscribe to Socso, as well as depositing with the government the equivalent of one year’s employee salary as security against a breach of the employment conditions. This will ensure that maids in service will be treated in accordance with minimum, acceptable standards. Strict enforcement will be difficult given the level of corruption in all Malaysian enforcement agencies, but we cannot use their lack of integrity as an excuse to do nothing to provide legitimate protection for our foreign maids against abuse in all its manifestations.

Many will no doubt scream blue murder at what they consider an “unfair” imposition on their rights to employ and treat their domestic servants as they please. They will say that a year’s deposit to be held by the government deprives the less affluent from employing maids. If they are incapable of meeting this and other conditions of employment, then obviously they are not ready to have servants at their beck and call. We must not think only of our “rights” and not stop to consider their rights as well. I understand fully the genuine necessity of many working parents for engaging maids to look after their children.

The law that I have in mind is not intended to prevent any person from employing maids. It is intended to ensure fairness and equity for both. It is time the rights of our employees were legally prescribed, respected and recognised. There is the other side of the “fairness” equation. What about protection for the employer? What if the maid runs away? Employing people is always a gamble and luck plays a part, but if you have taken care to choose your employee carefully, you can minimise the risk.

We are dealing with fellow human beings when we employ people and how we treat them and deal with their work as well as personal concerns will determine our relations with them. We win some and lose some as in any relationship. For many Malaysians, this is probably the first time in their lives that they have the luxury of domestic servants, and there are many practical adjustments to be made before they are comfortable with the presence of strangers in their midst, sharing both the positive and the negative aspects of family life. A live in maid is not every one’s cup of tea. It is certainly not my idea of domestic bliss.

I hope I will get all-party support to propose a private member’s bill in the Senate covering the employment of domestic staff. In the meantime I hope the Indonesian government will not lift its ban on maids for Malaysia until the Malaysian government wakes up to its moral obligations. Our courts have a role to play in ensuring that the punishment fits the crime especially in cases involving the use of hot irons on defenceless humans.

MySinchew 2010-09-25