Behind closed doors: A tale of ongoing domestic servitude in Malaysia
It was 2009 and she was working for an ethnic Chinese family in the suburbs of Sungai Buloh. It was January and nearing Chinese New Year, so “Madam” was rightfully angry with her error that might have caused embarrassment when family came to visit, she believed.
But she never expected the punishment.
“The couch wasn’t spoilt at all, it was just wet but she didn’t like it, she was very angry so she had me kneel down in front of the house, outside the gate,” Nay, a Cambodian domestic worker in Malaysia at the time, says in a recent interview.
“For two hours I knelt down on the asphalt, it was 1pm and it was a very hot day. I got blisters on both my knees.”
Instead of receiving any medical treatment for her burns, she was instructed to cover them with plastic bags.
“She didn’t want my blisters to burst and dirty the house.”
In 2011, the Cambodian government suspended the sending of domestic workers to Malaysia due to safety concerns, after dramatic reports of abuse and murder; three maids were murdered by their employers, while another two were raped and confined without access to their passports.
In December 2015, Cambodia signaled it was confident Malaysia could protect Cambodian citizens working in the country when it lifted the ban and signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Malaysia on the promise that “crucial tools to protect the rights and benefits of workers and employees of both country” would be upheld.
Not that the ban had stopped the overwhelmingly young, female and poor Cambodians travelling to Malaysia with the dream of high wages, Phnom Penh Post reported in 2015; they had just done so illegally instead.
Nor were Cambodian domestic workers already in Malaysia repatriated.
Despite the MoU — a non-legally binding document — containing clear stipulations intended to protect Cambodian domestic workers from human rights violations, exploitation and abuse, many still report suffering at the hands of their employers.
NGOs in Cambodia and Malaysia have said that forcing domestic workers to work long hours with no pay is commonplace. Employers confiscating their passports, as a means to restrict their freedom of movement and keep them submissive, is all but guaranteed.
Even worse, starvation and beatings are the go-to punishments for any perceived transgressions.
“The normal type of abuse is beating, yelling harsh words at them. The very common one is they work very long hours and the long hours itself is kind of an abuse,” North South Initiative (NSI) programme manager Ann Jacobs says in a recent interview.
Jacobs explains that NSI, a Kuala Lumpur-based NGO which routinely helps abused migrant workers in Malaysia, often hears from domestic workers in their care who recount that they are often expected to work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes with no breaks and little food.
“We had a case where the worker was beaten by her employer, and she was also not provided enough food to eat and was forced to sleep outside the house as punishment. So in the end, she couldn’t take it anymore and she ran away.
“[This means she] becomes undocumented because her employer is holding on to her passport. And when they come to us, they don’t know their employer’s names, addresses, phone numbers, they don’t have any information so even if you want to track down their passports, you can’t,” Jacobs says.
Long hours, non-stop work, without pay
It was in a house in the suburbs of Rawang, a town 40 minutes north of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, that Nay had her “best” experience in the six years she worked as a domestic worker.
It was 2004 and this was Nay’s very first time working as a domestic worker in Malaysia.
“My employer in Rawang, they never beat me but they shout to me and say a lot of not nice things to me. But they are okay in terms of food. They are okay.
“I [would] wake up at 4:30am every day because it’s a very big house, a bungalow. Sometimes I get to sleep early at 12:30am,” she recounts, unfazed.
Her first four years in Malaysia were spent in this nine-bedroom house in Rawang, washing the owner’s many cars, bathing their large dogs, cooking their meals and also taking care of their children.
According to Jacobs, domestic workers are meant to be assigned only to a specific duty when employed, be it to clean a home or to act as a nanny to children – never both.
“The family had two children, one of whom was a special needs child. He didn’t know how to speak, how to communicate and I didn’t know how to talk to him so it was very hard for me to take care of him,” Nay explains.
But long work hours did not register as domestic servitude to Nay. Neither did working without a day off for four years straight, or without receiving a single paycheck.
Her passport was also confiscated and her pay deducted for “costs” that legally are meant to have been borne by her the family who hired her.
“I had six and a half months of my salary deducted. I don’t know why but they just deducted it. I just applied to go to Malaysia and they promised to process everything for me that’s why I think they deducted my salary.
“But when it came time for them to give me my salary, they just put the US dollars in an envelope all together and give me and when I went home, I just passed my parents the entire envelope. It was about RM20,000 (about US$5,500),” Nay recalls.
Despite being promised a wage of up to US$400 a month, Nay was only paid approximately US$114.
Cambodian NGO Chab Dai, who regularly rescues migrant workers, explains that many women across Cambodia are lured to work in Malaysia on the pretext of large paychecks and employment benefits. But of course, this is far from the truth.
“Also they’re being tricked because right from beginning [the brokers] tell them that you can earn US$200 to US$300 a month and you’ll get great things like free medicine, one day off a week, food.
“But when they arrive they realise that they don’t get free meals, they don’t get a salary and if they fall sick, they still have to work so they’re being tricked,” a member of the NGO said on condition of anonymity.
The domestic workers’ abuse is compounded by their being forced to pay for all upfront costs associated with getting to Malaysia, which leaves the workers without a paycheck for at least the first six months, sometimes up to the first year of employment.
“[Brokers] might give some money or food or something for the migrants’ family, then they will make sure to organise all the papers to go to Malaysia but all these things like passport, document, training, flight or bus tickets — she will eventually have to pay for those things.
“That means at least five or six months’ salary is deducted to pay them back. Some situations even after those six months they still don’t receive salaries,” the group said.
‘I just wanted to go home’
Nay endured derogatory name-calling, starvation, exceedingly long work hours, beatings and confinements for close to two years while at the house in Sungai Buloh.
But it wasn’t until she ended up in the hospital, face-to-face with Malaysian police, that she realised it was time to temporarily call it quits.
“Apart from cleaning their house and washing their three cars and taking care of their disabled son, they also had me working in their curtain-making factory.
“One day I wrongly sewed a pretty expensive fabric. Madam was so angry that when we went home, she forced me to clean the whole house alone and didn’t let me eat. Then she beat me with the hose but because I hadn’t eaten all day, I fainted,” she says.
At the hospital, Nay was quizzed by nurses about her frail state and the many bruises covering her body. A nurse called the in-house police to report the apparent abuse.
“The police said that if I made a police report, my employer will go to jail. But at that time I didn’t know anyone so I just wanted to get my salary and go home,” she laments.
“Even if I explained in the police report, how can they help me? They can put my employers in jail but its okay because all I wanted to do is go home and see my parents. They didn’t know anything that was going on,” she says.
According to NGOs working with Cambodian domestic workers, Nay’s case is very common.
“The [police] process is slow and long and if the worker decides not to complain, they just want to go back home and resume their lives there.
“They don’t want anything they just want to come back home.
“It’s hard to get compensation so the employers can do anything,” Malaysian women’s NGO Committee of Asian Women’s Irene Xavier says in a recent interview.
According to the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry, 272 migrant workers in Malaysia were repatriated in 2016, four times more than the 58 in 2015. In 2014, only 34 were sent back to Cambodia.
The main reasons for the repatriations, the ministry said, was human trafficking, overwork and abuse.
Cambodia’s Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour insists that since the ban was first introduced in 2011, no Cambodian domestic workers had been legally sent to Malaysia. Sour explains that while the ban was no longer in effect, domestic workers could not be sent as the two countries were still working on a deal to establish pre-departure training centers at standards set by both nations.
“Even with the MoU concluded and given the green light, but still we haven’t sent any [domestic workers to Malaysia] as we are waiting for the training centers’ terms to be finalised.
“We are working with the Malaysian government to recognise who should run the training center, the curriculum, the standards. Once that is finalised, only then will we resume sending domestic workers,” he says.
According to Sour, in December 2016, both countries inked an implementing agreement which deals with the details of Cambodian migrant workers working as maids in Malaysia. Stating that both the 2015 MoU and the implementing agreement were confidential, he explained that some of the terms agreed upon included Malaysian employers being required to register with the ministry, as well as their having to undergo a background check to ensure that they did not have “a history of violence.”
“Employers must register with the Malaysian government so if there’s ever a problem, we can track them down.
“We also got assurance from our Malaysian counterparts that the maids will only work eight hours a day and be given one day off [a week]. Since the suspension of sending domestic workers there, [the Malaysian government] have reformed the domestic worker recruitment procedure so it’s not only about Cambodia but the whole process of domestic workers which in Malaysia has been revised and improved,” he assures.
The Malaysian Home Ministry, however, insists the deal has yet to be formalised.
“I just met the Cambodian ambassador two weeks ago and she said they haven’t signed it yet,” Malaysia’s deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamad said in a phone interview last month.
Malaysia’s Human Resource Ministry, on the other hand, did not return requests for comment.
When asked about protections awarded to domestic workers who were undocumented, either by being victims of human trafficking or those who ran away from abusive employers without their passports, Sour had little recourse.
“They are still considered illegal so we don’t encourage them to [travel]. We try to educate and train the maids and tell them that being illegal is not easy. That’s why we keep telling people to go through official channels. Otherwise it’s very difficult to protect them,” he says.
Malaysia’s Nur Jazlan expressed a similar sentiment, saying that the domestic workers needed to enter the country legally and be recognised by the government, offering little recourse for those there illegally.
“All the law and rules are there but if they’re abused and they don’t report it then it’s difficult. The enforcement officers can’t be raiding every house so [domestic workers] have to come forward,” he said.