Monday October 29, 2012
Treat domestic workers as equal human beings
By WONG LI ZA
Treating domestic workers as equal human beings is not only required by law, it is humane.
SARAH* (not her real name) is Cambodian and came to Malaysia last year to work as a domestic worker to help support her farmer parents back home.
After one-and-a-half years, her employer started punishing Sarah for simple things like not folding the towels according to how the employer wanted, or if she went to bed early after completing all the household chores. Sarah’s working hours started at 5am and only ended at midnight daily.
The 25-year-old was also deprived of food and made to sleep the entire night next to the doghouse outside. She was also beaten on the face with a belt buckle and made to kneel on the floor while her employer kicked her face repeatedly while wearing stilettos.
A concerned neighbour saw Sarah’s bruises and immediately called Tenaganita, a non-governmental organisation for women, migrants and refugees, to report the incident. When Tenaganita rescued Sarah, her face was swollen and badly bruised, and she had bloodshot eyes from massive blows to her head.
Sarah was never paid by her Klang Valley-based employers during the duration and her passport was withheld by them.
Phally* (not her real name) is also a Cambodian whose employer was a man in his 60s. Upon arriving in Malaysia in 2010, her passport was handed over to her Malaysian agency.
Her employer made her work at both his house as well as his shoe shop in Ipoh, Perak, and she only slept between four and six hours daily. She was not paid her monthly salary.
After two months, her employer started to rape her. This occurred eight times, each happening when his wife was not around.
He would also ask her to sit next to him and watch television and then demand to have sex with her. When she refused, he would beat her and then force himself on her.
After the eighth incident, Phally, 40, managed to seek help from an Indonesian lady who worked at a shop nearby. Together, they contacted her agency in Cambodia which reported the incident to the Malaysian agency, which then contacted her employer.
No police report was made by either party and her employer scolded Phally when she returned to his house. After that, he did not rape her but instead forced her to perform oral sex on him.
One day, he choked her for not tying a flag at the shop. It was then that Phally ran away and headed to the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for help.
In both cases, the women did not want to pursue a case against their employers. Tenaganita helped them negotiate for their unpaid salaries and compensation for the violence and abuse they suffered.
From January last year to September this year, Tenaganita handled close to 200 cases of domestic worker abuse incidents.
Based on these cases, the top five violations faced by the workers were: withholding of passport by employer (100% of cases), no contract signed between worker and employer (100%), no paid day off (100%), unpaid wages (76%) and physical abuse (60%).
Other violations included overwork, insufficient food or deprivation of food, doing double jobs (at home and at the employer’s business), poor living conditions, and sexual assault or rape. Each case typically involved a combination of seven or eight different violations.
Many employers do not realise that under the Anti-Trafficking In Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007, abusers can be fined up to RM1mil or imprisoned up to 20 years.
“We need to recognise that domestic workers are workers, and they have rights,” stressed Tenaganita programme director Glorene A. Das.
Part of Tenaganita’s initiatives involve asking the Government to change the terminology in the Employment Act, which lists domestic workers as “domestic servants”.
“(Regardless) of the terminology in the legislation, we are paying the domestic workers money, therefore they should be called workers. Also, if we continue to define or term them as servants, then the whole mentality of the working relationship also changes,” she added.
“It is important that we change the perspective of employers, who are the most important stakeholders in this action.”
As part of the company’s pro bono work, advertising agency McCann Kuala Lumpur held a public awareness campaign in collaboration with Tenaganita entitled Domestic Workers, Not Slaves from Sept 9 to16 at Publika Mall in Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur.
Aimed at employers, the campaign sought to create awareness of the rights of domestic workers.
“Most employers do not know their responsibilities and workers’ rights. They have the mentality that the worker is their slave, especially having paid RM12,000 for her.
“The campaign has certainly planted a seed in many people. It has created awareness among employers that they should treat their workers better and, I believe, stirred people to do something about it,” Glorene said.
McCann executive creative director Huang Ean Hwa said the campaign was one small step towards trying to educate people about the rights of workers.
“It won’t change things overnight but we hope we managed to create at least some conversations about the issue,” Huang said, adding that the campaign also highlighted the fact that employers could get into trouble with the law if they violated the rights of the workers.
Tenaganita programme officer Liva Sreedharan said besides an increase in sexual abuse incidents, food deprivation was also on the rise.
“There was a girl who had only worked here one-and-a-half months but had lost 12kg. And that was not an isolated case, unfortunately,” she said.
Verbal abuse, which many employers do not consider a form of abuse, is also rampant.
“It lowers one’s self-esteem, degrades a person and affects their performance. Verbal abuse eventually becomes emotional abuse,” Liva added.
In May last year, Malaysia and Indonesia signed a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) stipulating, among other things, that workers get a day off a week, a minimum monthly salary of RM700 and the right to keep their own passports.
However, many agents tell employers not to inform the workers of these rights.
“Employers need to tell workers their rights, such as getting a day off, and then it’s up to the worker whether she wants to work on that day or not. If she does, we have to ensure she actually gets paid because there is nothing in black and white to show that she actually worked on the extra day or that the employer has agreed to pay the amount,” Glorene stressed.
In 2008, Tenaganita launched a campaign to advocate a day off for domestic workers.
One of the activities, held together with a faith-based organisation, involved employers opening up their homes for the workers to get together on their off day.
“That was one of the best practices that we have had. We had feedback that the performance of the domestic workers increased after that,” Glorene said.
Tenaganita also receives calls on its hotline from concerned employers facing problems with their domestic workers but who do not want to send them back to the agents as they might end up being ill-treated.
“We also get calls from members of a family who want to report a violation occurring in the family but wish to remain anonymous. We then go in and handle the case and that way, both the worker and the family are helped, so there are employers who are concerned about domestic workers out there,” Liva said.
Another Tenaganita effort is to push the Malaysian Government to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention that was adopted last year in Geneva (Malaysia is a member State of the ILO).
On June 16 last year, the International Labour Conference of the ILO adopted the Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, which is also referred to as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No.189).
Convention No.189 offers specific protection to domestic workers. It lays down basic rights and principles, and requires States to take a series of measures to make decent work a reality for domestic workers.
The Convention lists out the basic rights of domestic workers, which include: effective protection against all forms of abuse, harassment and violence; fair terms of employment; and decent living conditions. It also stipulates that “domestic workers must be informed of their terms and conditions of employment in an easily understandable manner, preferably through a written contract. and weekly rest period of at least 24 consecutive hours”.
It also states that domestic workers should be paid a minimum wage every month and that they have the right to keep their identity and travel documents in their possession.
“Our initiatives and the recent awareness campaign are all done for the girls who leave their homes and families, some as young as 13, to come here and do the chores of a 24- or 25-year-old. Awareness is the key to action,” said Glorene.
> For more information, call Tenaganita’s hotline at 012-335 0512/012-339 5350/03-7770 3671 or visit tenaganita.net.