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Elaine Sim, a Malaysian student studying in the UK, discusses her experience of the issues faced by domestic workers in Malaysia.

I was born and raised in Malaysia until I was 19 years old. For the majority of my childhood, I had maids in my household to help out with daily chores such as cooking and cleaning, caring for young children and the elderly. The use of domestic workers is particularly common in Malaysia by lower and upper middle class families; sometimes due to necessity (for households with two working parents) but largely due to the affordability and availability of these services. Unfortunately, the system is extremely flawed in offering adequate protection to domestic workers. This is evident from the numerous notorious reports of domestic abuse, both physical and mental, towards domestic workers.

Malaysia receives most of its domestic workers from Indonesia, and some from Cambodia or the Philippines. Migrant workers are hired through agencies that train them and deal with their employers. At the agency, these workers are drilled to be compliant and to obey the instructions of the employer. These workers are then picked by an employer and placed in homes where they stay for the next two years. In the process, there is no discussion of terms, or details of the duties and responsibilities of the position. Just like that, the two year contract, under which they can work seven days a week and up to eighteen hours a day, begins. In addition to lengthy work days, these workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to many other factors that come into play.

Social exclusion

Once, I brought my maid to the agency to complete some paperwork. My maid asked the agent for her phone back so that she could call her husband and children. She also specifically told the agent that my mother had given her permission. My maid has a husband and three children. Her youngest child was only a few months old when she started work with us in 2013. The agent replied by saying that if she wanted to call home, my mother could help her and she did not need a phone. The agent then turned to me and spoke in English explaining that it was better for them not to have phones as they will get home sick and this will tempt them to terminate their two year contract before it expires. It is common for domestic workers to have their phones taken from them, and their passports confiscated. Without a passport, there is the risk of being classed as an illegal immigrant if they decide to leave their place of work.

Domestic workers are sheltered from the eyes of the outside world. Often they have no friends, as every household usually only has one maid and they have very little contact with anyone else other than the people living in the household. As a result, they are usually very lonely. With no phones to call home and no friends, there is virtually no one they could turn to if they were to get into trouble.

Submission

Submission roots from the fact that there are no proper terms on how work is to be performed. The nature of the work is simply to do as they were told. In addition, there are many factors deterring domestic workers from breaking their contracts, which leads to submissive behaviour. Firstly, there are financial factors. Migrant workers must pay hundreds or thousands of ringgit (MYR) to their agencies for "paperwork", often amounting to 1-6 months (depending on the agent) of their salaries for a two-year contract. This deduction from an already modest salary is appalling. Furthermore, domestic workers tend to put up with the difficulties they face to avoid complications such as non-payment of wages or additional agency fees.

Secondly, cultural differences and perceived societal attitudes towards domestic workers who are often regarded as of low status also leads to submissive behaviour. I feel that it is crucial for these societal attitudes to change if the issue is to be tackled more effectively. There needs to be an increased awareness that these women who live in our homes have families just like everyone else. They are wives, mothers and daughters and should be treated with more respect.

In short, the maid issue in Malaysia is genuinely a situation of modern slavery. Although the abuse appears in less subtle forms, the suffering is very real. I feel that stricter laws would definitely improve the situation that domestic workers face. Currently, there are activists in Malaysia fighting for this cause but little progress has been made. The economic dependence of these workers and their inability to obtain redress needs to be treated with more urgency.

More international pressure would definitely urge the Malaysian Government to tackle this issue more seriously. Change needs to come from all sides. There needs to be more transparency with paperwork and agency fees. Furthermore, proper discussions of terms and conditions of work will definitely help create more realistic expectations of working conditions and eventually lead to less abuse. Most importantly, societal attitudes towards domestic workers must change. Until then, it is unlikely that any worthwhile positive changes can be made.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.

The RCS report and info graphic on ‘Hidden Violence in the Commonwealth’ detail the prevalence of modern slavery in the Commonwealth.