EVEN before the pandemic hit, many foreign domestic workers in Malaysia were already placed in forced labour situations. However, things got significantly worse once Covid-19 struck.
Tenaganita, an NGO which protects and promotes the rights of migrants, refugees, women, and children, found that prior to the movement control order, many domestic workers were forced to endure slavery-like conditions of work; trafficked with no or low wages, denied benefits, were not allowed to communicate with loved ones, worked long hours, and did not even have one rest day.
Tenaganita’s analysis found that the Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation as workload and responsibilities piled up - since the start of the MCO on March 18,2020, until December, the NGO received 101 cases related to domestic workers.
“During these times, we found that domestic workers have been exploited and most of them were abused, mentally and emotionally tortured, and some even had dealt with physical assault and harassment, ” says Tenaganita executive director Glorene Das, adding that violence against women, especially towards domestic workers, increased significantly.
“Cases of labor violations such as unpaid wages, unlawful deduction, food deprivation, and withholding of passports were also common violations, ” she says.
There is also an increasing number of domestic workers survivors who face mental health issues.
“Many were not able to send money home, since their employers were not working or had been laid off. They also faced the risk of being infected by the virus and they lacked the accurate information on the virus, ” says Das.
A major setback is that there is no effective monitoring mechanism in place to ensure that the labour and human rights of domestic workers are protected.
“Their place of work, the employer’s home, is seen as a private domain which is not subject to public scrutiny, ” says Das.
The reality is that domestic workers also lack information on how they can seek help if subjected to human rights and labour violations.
For many domestic workers, getting away from abuse and exploitation is a lose-lose situation.
Those who seek to free themselves by running away can be criminalised and prosecuted under the Immigration Act because they then automatically become undocumented.
No legal protection
Because the Employment Act 1995 defines domestic workers as “servants” rather than workers, they do not gain the benefits and rights enshrined in the Act, and in other labour laws like the Industrial Relations Act or the Trade Union Act. Their only right is the right to claim wages through the Labour Court.
The first and necessary step is to include domestic workers in the current Employment Act as an interim measure. In the long run, Tenaganita advocates for a separate legislation – a law that encompasses the entirety of domestic work, potential issues that may arise in this line of employment, and provide an avenue for domestic workers to access justice.
No channels for complaints
One factor that contributes to the abuse of live-in domestic workers is that they often do not have any freedom of mobility or avenue of self expression.
There is little room to lodge complaints when many have their phones taken away by employers and agents, says North-South Initiative executive director and co-founder Adrian Pereira.
NSI is a social-justice based NGO that works on issues related to marginalised communities.
Even if a complaint is made, the situation faced by a live-in domestic worker is not like a regular work environment.
“Imagine that after making a complaint, you will have to meet the same family again. They may change their attitudes towards you, or may even take revenge, ” Pereira explains.
One way to address this issue is for Malaysian authorities to conduct more systematic and routine checks, and allow for a way to carry out house inspections, says Pereira.
“The degree of abuse is abnormally high. Some of the cases can be shocking. Domestic workers having hot water thrown on them, or made to sleep outside. Until today we don’t have guaranteed regulations to solve this, ” he says.
“If you see a domestic worker being abused, you can either complain to the police, to the labour department, or local NGOs. In chronic cases, some NGOs can work with the police to conduct rescues, ” says Pereira.
The foreign embassies can only respond as much as per the local laws allow so the embassies are also limited, says Pereira.
“They can do much more, but they are also restricted by Malaysian laws, and some by self-interest, ” he says.
No excuse not to pay salaries
Migrant rights NGOs have raised concerns about a rising number of employers who have not paid salaries to their domestic workers, a situation which may have arisen due to job losses and salary cuts faced by employers during the pandemic.
Although employers may face difficult financial challenges, this does not give them the right to refuse payment entitled to their employees.
Association of Employment Agencies Malaysia (Papa) president, Datuk Foo Yong Hooi warns that employers who do not pay salaries of domestic workers can be charged under Human Trafficking offences.
“If the employer cannot afford to pay salaries, then either let them go back to their home countries or transfer their employment to another employer with the permission of the immigration department, ” says Foo.
“For employers with very low emotional intelligence, it is better that they don’t hire domestic workers. They are also human beings who are just doing their jobs and earning a salary, and so must be given due respect, ” he says in response to the cases of emotional and physical abuse of domestic workers.
Sunday Star has reached out to the Malaysian Maid Employers Association (Mama) and is awaiting their response.