Some may remember the 2002 movie “Maid in Manhattan” with Jennifer Lopez as Marisa Ventura, a mother working as a chamber maid in a classy Manhattan hotel. She meets a politician, Christopher Marshall, who falls in love with her and is staying at the hotel where she works. He mistakes her for someone else but later finds out, and she gets fired from her job for this seeming deception. However, after the story runs its course, true love triumphs in the end, and they live happily ever after.
Many young girls,especially those from impoverished rural areas perhaps hope such dreams will come true for them in a more affluent environment where they can earn a decent living, and get a better life for their families and themselves. But, the reality isn’t as simple or straight-forward as they think.
The reality in Malaysia, is far more complex, difficult and at times tragic. There are many foreign domestic workers in Malaysia, who come from countries around Southeast Asia. They come with high hopes to earn a decent living to provide for families and dependents back home. Some may have dreams of having a better life through marriage with a local, if they happened to meet Mr.Right. Yet, those with dreams of marriage may be fewer than those intent on earning an honest living. Whatever, it may be, these women have a right to their dreams, that may or not be realistic. This glowing aspect of going to a foreign country to work or start a new life has its downside which could turn those rosy dreams to ashes.
Firstly, there is a long list of “Don’ts” that foreign workers must keep in mind if they work in this country. Some of the main ‘don’ts’ are:
Don’t get Married, Don’t get sick, Don’t get pregnant, Don’t get unionized, Don’t disagree with your employer, Don’t change your Employer or your job category,
Don’t complain about bad living or working conditions and terms, Don’t socialize unless allowed to by the employer.
Domestic workers, especially those with ‘stay-in’ household jobs, are often isolated from the outside world. The employer is in full control of the whole working and living environment. There are many well-meaning employers who treat their domestic workers reasonably well, but there are some others who see their domestic workers as nothing more than a commodity or utility they have purchased for their convenience. Migrant domestic workers commonly work between 12 to 20 hours a day. Meal breaks and rest breaks are very brief, may be 15 – 30 minutes a day. Some get only 3-4 hours of sleep a night starting their work as early as 5.00am, and finishing about 1 or 2 in the morning.
They are also subjected to mandatory testing, a medical examination, at specific intervals. This is compulsory. The only choice being consent or deportation. A migrant domestic worker found pregnant or ill can be deported without a hearing. Essentially, Malaysian employment laws are optional for migrant domestic workers i.e. an employer may choose to apply these laws to their MDW or not. Most employers choose what their commonsense dictates. The problem is that, domestic work is not considered work under Malaysian employment laws.
When it comes to wages, MDWs are at the mercy of their employers. The lack of proper regulation allows arbitrary wage deductions. Since employers pay thousands of Ringgit to get a MDW, in fees to the recruitment agent and levies to the government, some recover these expenses from the worker by deducting a percentage of their wages each month. Since wages are already low (the legal minimum wage being RM800 and RM900 per month for Sabah and Sarawak, and Peninsular Malaysia respectively) any deduction shrinks the already meager sum. So, even if thrift is imposed, it takes a long time to accumulate a proper amount to send home, yet many MDW persevere in sending home whatever they can.
There is no guarantee of safety for the MDW. There have been some cases where migrant domestic workers have been ill-treated and abused by employers. Some deaths have resulted from such abuse and physical violation of MDWs and others are psychologically and physically scarred for life. Employers in certain widely publicized cases have been prosecuted but many others resort to having the domestic worker deported or returned to the agent and everything is kept quiet.
On the other hand, there have been MDWs who may be mentally disturbed, possibly because of earlier ill-treatment and isolation, or untreated medical causes. However, these sometimes go undetected, or symptoms are ignored by employers. The few cases of domestic workers abusing children in their care or retaliating against their employers have also been prosecuted.
However, one may sympathize with the MDW as the conditions under which they have to live in a foreign land sometimes with little or no contact with family or even persons from their own community make life more difficult to bear. They are away from home and all that they are familiar with for at least 2 or 3 years before they can have a month’s leave at home.
The working and living environment which a MDW finds herself (or himself) can quickly put an end to those high hopes and aspirations each carries with them when they begin their journey to seek a better life in a foreign country.
Next time you meet or decide to employ a migrant worker, be aware that they are in an environment they are unfamiliar with and they should be allowed space and time to get to know their employers and the ways of this land. They are human beings like you. Think of what you would do if you were in their shoes.
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