Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Stop the Abuse of Foreign Domestic Workers

The recent attack on the foreign domestic worker known only as Siami, for simply making the porridge ‘too thin’ highlights the continued abuse that many foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are exposed to on a daily basis. Siami, 27, was subject to being scolded with water and then physically assaulted by her employer for this minor error. Cut off from the world, many work extremely long days consisting of between 12-16 hours and are usually deprived of a day off. Despite this, many in the public, political and social sphere continually overlook this occupation, failing even to define the occupation as work.

The abuses faced by FDWs should not be view as a consequence of merely a few bad employers, as there are many cases that go unreported and these include serious physical and sexual abuses. There remain few practical oversight mechanisms in place in order to provide domestic workers with the ability to report any abuses or ill treatment. Furthermore, domestic workers are deprived of one paid day off a week, and in fact most do not get a rest day off throughout the whole year and this further impedes their ability to cry for help.

Such abuses as those that Siami was exposed to occurred precisely because they are treated as “maids” and not like any other worker who are protected under existing labour legislation. Under Malaysian law, FDW are defined only as domestic servants under the Employment Act 1955. As such the Employment Act of Malaysia continues to categorically exclude domestic workers from labour protection provisions such as regulating hours of work, holidays, days off, termination, and overtime pay. Domestic workers are the lowest paid workers (especially Indonesians like Siami) in the absence of a legal minimum wage.

As a consequence of this, they do not enjoy the benefits and rights enshrined to other workers under this legislation or other labour laws such as the Industrial Relations Act or the Trade Union Act. It is very unfortunate that the only right they are entitled to is the ability to claim unpaid wages through the Labour Court.

Not only are FDW deprived of the labour rights accommodated to other forms of worker, their access to justice is also hindered by the fact that they can be deported once abusive employers cancel their existing work permits. While employers or agents hold a domestic workers’ passport if they escape, police may arrest and detain any foreign worker without valid documents. This means that these workers are often confined to the workplace where their means to escape abuse are extremely limited.

Employers are frequently known to ensure that they remain isolated and solely dependent on the family by forbidding workers to use telephones or leaving the house unaccompanied by employers. Added to this is the fact that the work permit issued by the Immigration department does not allow the domestic worker to change place of work or employer when she is abused.

The Immigration Department’s guidelines on the application for domestic workers clearly states that “The employer must allow the PRA (foreign domestic worker) one rest day weekly”. However, FDWs are often deprived of this rest day weekly except for the Filipino FDWs.

CARAM Asia strongly asserts that the Malaysian government must immediately revaluate the protection mechanisms of this demographic and mustn’t continue to view violations faced by DWs and FDWs as singular cases perpetrated by only a handful of employers.

This form of extreme institutionalised exploitation of domestic workers has been ongoing for the past three decades. In fact it is clear that the previously listed rights violations ferment an environment of bonded labour with intense servitude and debt bondage that constitutes trafficking in persons. Moreover, the cycle of abuses that are inflicted on FDWs will continue until the Malaysian government protects the rights of domestic workers by guaranteeing the rights through the law and setting up of appropriate oversight mechanisms.

CARAM Asia calls for the government to:

• Enact a Domestic Worker Act to grant equal labour rights to domestic workers just like any other rights given to other workers.
• Enforced a standard employment contract for FDWs without discrimination based on their nationalities.

The standard contract must ensure that:
• FDWs gets a weekly paid day off, Sick leave, maternity leave, and annual leave
• Employers are required to give workers at least continuous period of eight hours of sleep everyday, provide three adequate meals per day to domestic workers, over and above their salary, to provide a decent separate room meeting health standards
• Domestic workers be permitted to hold personnel belongings, among these are mobiles, the Koran, their passport, their contract, and so on
• Workplace injury compensation and comprehensive health insurance guaranteed
• Payment must be made directly to domestic workers monthly, not to the agent
• Domestic workers are required to fulfil the work duties laid out in the agreed contract and shall not be required to undertake tasks outside the job description with anyone else and other rights as accorded to other workers.

Malaysia must do more to meet with its exiting international obligations to protect domestic workers.
Malaysia has committed to uphold human rights protections as defined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). They must ensure that domestic law and its enforcement comply with their international obligations to protect the rights of women and to guarantee equality under the law. The CEDAW General Recommendation 26 specifically mentioned that domestic workers “are protected by labour laws including wage and hour regulations, health and safety codes, and vacation leave regulations.”

Malaysia has also ratified several ILO conventions, including the ILO Forced Labour Convention (No. 29), the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), and the ILO Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98). As such, Malaysia has an obligation to protect the rights of workers as set forth in those treaties. Moreover, the ILO is in the process of developing a proposed Domestic Workers Convention to be adopted by 2011. Therefore, Malaysia should develop a domestic legislation specifically to protect domestic worker and become an example of best practises in this area prior to ILO’s Law and Practice report on the situation of domestic worker. As a member of ASEAN, Malaysia has also signed the Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of Migrant Workers Rights in 2007, and therefore should also uphold the principles laid out in the declaration to protect the rights of all migrant workers.

1 comment:

Laila said...

I do believe in your cause and I understand your plight especially after recent numbers and statistics have been posted.
However, I am amazed at the fact that your arguments and campaigning efforts are far from being balanced.
For employers to trust and give, where are the laws and regulations that hold DWs accountable for common misdemeaners that are potentially life damaging to children and their families?
Take for example:
- the rising number of thefts. In Jordan, there is a number of thefts that go unpunished. A sri Lankan DW once shared her thought with me and said: it's an easy team job, they steal a large sum, give it to a friend to hide for a while. The worst that can happen is that they go to prison for a short while and the employer is asked to even pay more money to deport the criminal. Money is never returned and the employers is faced with many costs to make the claim.
- Runaways, the lure of more money and an imaginary better future makes some DWs accept employment as a way into the country with pre conceived plans to runaway within the first few months of employment
- Child abuse.... well this phenomenon has been repeatedly witnessed and reported, with no action taken to protect children and their families
- Disrespect for local culture. Many DWs settle in Jordan only to start establishing extra marital affairs, usually when home owners are out and unfortunately in many cases... when a child is standing witness

As a journalist researching this issue for a feature, I'm truly suprised at how unbalanced all the campaigning is, leaving employers unprotected from DW abuse.