Monday, November 23, 2009

Helping the help

Sunday November 22, 2009

Helping the help


With cases of maid abuse threatening to rattle ties between Indonesia and Malaysia, the Government is resorting to measures like random checks on homes to curb the problem. Will these ‘friendly visits’ work?

IN less than 10 days, the “Maid Police” will start going from door to door nationwide to check on foreign domestic workers and their bosses.

The authorities involved in the special operation – the Labour and Immigration Departments – have been diligently preparing for the task and are now raring to go.

Tell-tale injuries: Indonesian maid Modesta Rengga Kaka, 25, showing the injuries she suffered as a result of the alleged abuse by her employer. Cases of workers being abused are rattling Indonesian- Malaysian ties.

However, the mood on the ground is still mixed about the ambitious programme and many are sceptical about its effectiveness in addressing the root of the problem.

A maid agent who only wants to be known as Low recalls a similar nationwide programme that was mooted in 2001.

“The Government came up with the same plan to conduct routine checks on maids at their places of work to ensure they are not being mistreated.”

However, it was shelved not long after that, she adds. “The original plan was abandoned because of manpower shortage. There are around 300,000 maids (in approximately 250,000 households) in Malaysia. Do they have enough people to conduct the visits now?”

Bar Council Human Rights committee member Renuka T. Balasubramaniam shares Low’s scepticism, revealing that her records show that the Labour Department has only around 295 officers nationwide.

“It is clear that the ministry is understaffed compared to the number of domestic workers in Malaysia. And this is one of the reasons why they are not able to handle the claims and other cases made to them. So, to go to 250,000 houses is mission impossible. They have to get real,” she opines.

When contacted, an officer who declined to be named says the number will be made up by personnel from the Immigration Depart­ment. Records show that it has more than 11,000 officers of varying ranks nationwide.

Still, says Renuka, it will be a challenge for the authorities to maintain the exercise over time.

“To be effective, it has to be continuous but if they are shortstaffed, they are not going to manage it. I don’t think it will be an effective way to cut out maid abuse anyway. But because so few measures have been implemented by the ministries to deal with this problem, we don’t want to shoot it down.

“Who knows, they may chance upon a domestic worker who is being abused and will be able to save her.

“If anything else, at least the officers conducting the checks will get some insights into the real conditions that these domestic workers have to face,” she opines.

No confidence

As announced by the Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam, the house visit would be a friendly public relations exercise during which ministry personnel will inspect the home conditions as well as interview the maid and employer.

With the visits, it is hoped that early signs of mistreatment can be detected and employers can be prevented from further abusing their help.

Currently, ministry sources say, they are finalising the standard operating procedures (SOP) and other guidelines to ensure that the checks will be conducted legally and properly.

Tenaganita director Dr Irene Fernandez believes the exercise would only be a waste of public resources.

“We will waste funds and energy while not achieving anything much. Do they think the maids are going to let them in, what more give them an honest answer when they turn up at their door?” she says, stressing that most of them will be frightened at seeing the officers.

Employers, meanwhile, will put up a facade to show that nothing is wrong, she adds.

Migrant Care Malaysia country director Alex Wong agrees, saying that while the intention is commendable, door-to-door checks are not realistic.

“It’s not going to be easy to get the full cooperation of the maids and the employers. They are also scattered all over the country and 250,000 is a huge number of households,” he adds.

Wong proposes a weekly community meeting as a better alternative.

“Instead of going to homes, the authorities can get everyone to attend a compulsory meeting at the community centre. Their officers can still speak to the maids as well as provide check-ups and counselling for them without invading people’s privacy,” he says, proposing registration with the local Rukun Tetangga as another option.

Doreen Gomez, who has employed the same domestic worker for five years, feels that it is the responsibility of the neighbourhood to ensure that no abuse happens in their community.

“What is there to stop abusive employers from pretending or hiding their abuses when they are inspected? It is more effective if everyone in the neighbourhood look out for any abuses in their community and report them to the authorities,” she says.

Many other employers feel that the Govern­ment’s checks will be futile.

Chow L.J. calls it a knee-jerk reaction on the authorities’ part.

“It is ridiculous and is obviously the Govern­ment’s PR (public relations) plan to improve our relations with Indonesia. I am scared that the opposite will happen; it might push the guilty employers over the edge and make the situation worse instead,” she says.

Rahmah Harun feels that it is unfair to generalise that all employers are abusing their hired help.

“There is enough evidence to show the authorities that most maids are treated well while working in Malaysia. So, just because of a few cases of bad employers, it is highly unfair to treat all employers as criminals or with criminal potential,” she says.

Rahmah, who has been employing foreign maids for almost 10 years, says that on the whole, most of them are good and carry out their duties sincerely and diligently.

But there are those who cannot do their work, and as we all know, each maid comes with high all-in costs, she notes.

Salman Ahmah opines that the “inspections” would create various security problems.

“How can they assure the safety of our families? Many years ago, there was a trend for thieves and robbers to pretend to be salesmen or meter readers. They forged identification cards and had fake uniforms and badges. What if someone takes advantage of this operation?” he argues.

He adds that he would instruct his maid not to open the door to any stranger.

Another party that should be held accountable for maid abuse is the maid agency, says Wong.

“They are responsible because they earn a lot of money from the foreign domestic workers whom they treat like human commodity. Some agents from both sides of the border are unscrupulous – they charge a lot of money and to meet the market demand, a few get girls from the village, clean them up and send them over without training. This is when problems arise,” he says.

The agencies need to monitor the situation and conduct regular checks on the maids they bring in, he stresses.

Numbers do not lie

Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies (Papa) president Alwi Bavutty admits that Papa is responsible for the maids.

“We bring them over, so if something happens here and we don’t take care of them, we will lose our partnership with our business counterparts in Indonesia.

“But we don’t have any enforcement power so the Government needs to take action, such as blacklisting employers who mistreat their maids.”

He points out that Papa recently proposed for regular visits to be made to their clients’ houses to ensure that the workers are well.

But many employers refused or barred their maids from contacting them, he says.

Indonesian media reports have claimed that up to 150 complaints of abuse, overwork, ill treatment and unpaid salaries are lodged by maids each month.

However, the question has to be asked: How rampant is maid abuse, and does it warrant such a massive exercise?

Of the 300,000 foreign maids in Malaysia, Indonesians make up more than 90%; 15,000 are from the Philippines and there are between 1,000 and 2,000 each from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia.

According to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wira Abu Seman Yusop, cases of Indonesian maids being abused by their Malaysian employers constitute 0.05% of the total number of them in the country.

Seven such reports were lodged with the police this year, five of which are being investigated by the police, he says.

Police figures show that up to 39 cases of maid abuse were reported in 2005, 45 in 2006, 39 in 2007 and 42 last year. Since the beginning of this year, there have been less than 10 victims.

Records show that between 2006 and last year, there were six cases of maids being injured while trying to flee employers, and one case of a maid found dead by hanging in 2008.

However, as Indonesian NGO Migrant Care policy analyst Wahyu Susilo stresses, the number is not the issue.

“Even if there is only one death, the issue needs to be taken seriously. It concerns human life.”

He adds that he does not think the Indonesian press is blowing the issue out of proportion.

“I admit that this issue is sensitive in Indonesia, especially when it is related to Indonesian/Malaysian ties,” he says.

“It is not only targeted at the Malaysian government but also the Indonesian government because we don’t think they are doing enough to address it.”

Alwi agrees, saying that the seemingly “low” number of maid abuse incidents does not mean it should be tolerated.

“We cannot tolerate this because it involves human lives. The Government has to take this seriously.”

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