Trapped within an Odyssey of Oil Money, Entitlement and Empathy Deficit

The drive through Kuala Lumpur to the modest home where I would leave my bags for four days provided the first glimpse of life in the Malaysian capital. In little time it caught my attention that this city stands out from its regional neighbours.

Having just flown from Bangkok, a city of millions who overflow the sidewalks and pack the streets moving in every direction at a chaotic pace, to arrive in what is generally considered the Arab Emirate of Southeast Asia, I noticed that the change was immediate. Roads paved smooth delighting the caviar of luxury cars, the trees and gardens manicured to perfection, great towers kissing the heavens. Money seemingly flowing, unregulated, like an undercurrent tapped from a well of oil.

Winding through the tree-lined streets of the expat community, the other world within the city was evident: monster homes protected by high fences, security cameras watching every movement, many of the houses nestled behind the gates of privileged cul-de-sacs hidden from anything local. But even among the expats the lifestyles and income levels differ greatly.

Old friends and hosts Pat and Karen, a husband and wife expat and local, have made their home here together for 15 years. The majority of their friends are under contract with major oil companies, many of them geologists with sweetened incentive packages of personal cars, expense accounts, home rental fees, and of course bloated salaries. Pat and Karen’s lives are simple compared to those around them, as climate, nature and family keeps them in the country.

Their quiet street of town houses, lacking the pomp of those around the corner, is still under the watchful eye of a fulltime security guard. Brought in after a string of daytime break-ins, there were hopes his presence alone would deter more in the future. No older than 25, the young Nepalese guard spends his days in a small kiosk waving and smiling at residents as they come and go. Seldom does he get a smile back. He works seven days a week, 12 hours a day, without complaint, nor a social existence.

Such is the reality of life for a migrant worker in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur where an army of workers are needed and wanted to maintain lavish lifestyles. Regardless of the streams of money, with the wealth that exists the lower class of employees are mistreated and underpaid, and few more than the women who slave all day as domestic workers.
With no domestic help, Pat and Karen are an anomaly among expats. But the problems associated with the way the workers are treated and how they are viewed in Malaysia is clear.

“These are people viewed as a lower class of human,” says Karen, a native of Kuala Lumpur who grew-up watching as neighbours lived lives of extravagance, noting it doesn’t take a large salary, even by western standards, to afford full-time help. “Even lower middle-class families have full-time maids.”

Pat has seen scores of friends focus solely on careers while leaving both the household and childcare responsibilities to their domestic worker.

“There are more children here raised by the maid than not,” he said, noting his astonishment at how so many can show so little respect for the women who are left to care for their children. However, even as new laws come into effect to protect workers who seldom leave the house, he wasn’t confident that things would change. “How do you enforce a law when everyone is breaking it?”

For them the problem is ingrained in the county’s cultural and economic makeup. The issue he says facing domestic workers in Malaysia has much to do with a society that depends heavily on cheap foreign labour to maintain a high standard of living. On top of that, worse they believe, is the empathy deficit that Malaysia suffers. In fact, they say there is no empathy to be found.

From maids, to waiters, to the security guard at the street entrance, foreign workers fill the jobs that no Malaysian would ever consider, especially not for the wages offered. The international community has taken notice, time and time again. But the story of Malaysia and its domestic workforce is one of failed hopes and empty promises.

An International Call for Change

In June amid much fanfare and media attention, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a treaty aimed to protect domestic workers worldwide. Governments, trade unions and employee organisations convened to create an agreement that would set internationally recognised standards for domestic work. It was hailed as a major step forward for those employed to clean homes and act as caretakers.

And as much as the treaty is viewed as an empowerment of workers, it is seen globally as a treaty to protect the rights of women.

The number of domestic workers worldwide is estimated from 50 – 100 million people, most of them women and girls. Long without any labour laws to safeguard them from abuse, those who work within the home are out of sight and subjected to a dizzying array of sub-standard conditions, labour exploitation, sexual and physical violence. The majority of them work in countries that view them as a sub-class of people, or fail to recognise them at all. The same standards applied to states’ own citizens do not apply to the women who mop the floors.

Over three years the ILO developed the agreement that will help domestic workers receive similar recognition as workers in other sectors. Among the rules and regulations to take effect are things as simple as allowing workers to retain their passports, maintain set working hours and a mandatory day off each week. Allowances so basic compared to most people that the idea of a holiday exists only in the realm of fantasy.

Although the convention has been seen an historic success for setting universal rules for the treatment of domestic workers, signatory national governments must still implement it through law, and only after it has been ratified, a process that has yet to begin.

Of the 475 ILO delegates who voted, an overwhelming 396 were in favour and 16 countries were against. The remaining 63 abstained, including Malaysia, and for reasons which are easy to understand.

Having to observe stricter labour laws would affect what is essentially modern-day slavery in Malaysia. Increasing wages and rights would undo the society’s social order by elevating the help to a status nearly equalling fellow citizens. Keeping domestic workers outside of labour agreements keeps them cheap and expendable, making certain that most households could employ one at their disposal.

Until recently, the average monthly take home salary for a domestic worker in Kuala Lumpur, regulated solely by the employers themselves, was roughly 500 Ringgits, or $158 USD, and that is when employers agreed to pay. The idea of a minimum wage has been unheard of in all sectors, so the idea to implement one rattled the comforts of the elite.

Known as a country that goes to great lengths to avoid the negative spotlight, Malaysia opted to create its own solution through a bilateral agreement with neighbouring country Indonesia, its number one source of domestic workers.

On the surface the agreement with Indonesia makes sense, but it was not arrived at by choice. Stemming from a 2009 Indonesian moratorium on domestic workers bound for Malaysia, the country was not only starved for workers, but for domestic staff with cultural, linguistic and religious similarities. The bold move by Indonesia was made in response to Malaysia’s reluctance to respond to cases of abuse, and it worked, forcing the country to negotiate improved conditions.

Parimala Moses of the Malaysian Trade Union Organization (MTUC) says that Malaysia’s initial reaction was to seek workers from another country, and one that would not question their treatment. The project officer for the MTUC/ILO Action Programme for Migrant Domestic Workers in Malaysia points to a 2010 drop in the number of workers, which fell to 225,000 from 310,000 because of the freeze.

“To make-up for the loss of Indonesian workers, Malaysians began taking from Cambodia whose number was previously less than 5,000. When they started hiring from Cambodia, the number immediately shot up to 10,000, and that’s when we began seeing the problems,” she said.

The problems Moses refers to were abuses often more severe than those seen with the Indonesians, primarily due to language and cultural differences. Recognising that the situation was not working with Cambodians, Malaysia sat down with Indonesia to find a solution and end the freeze.

After two years of negotiations, the result was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two countries. In it many of the same issues included in the ILO convention were agreed upon, such as the right of a worker to keep their passport and a mandatory day off. Even a set minimum wage of 700 R per month was met. The agreements will see the ban will be lifted Dec 1, allowing workers to again flow across the border and into homes. Although the MOU is being applauded my human rights and workers advocacy groups as a positive step forward, one issue that continues to loom jeopardises the chances that progress will actually be realised.

“The problem boils down to a lack of enforcement and a lack of monitoring,” said Moses, critical that the MOU fails to produce concrete ways to empower the women. “The workers are all in private domains and out of sight. Do we have the man power to go and check? No, we don’t.”

With 80,000 workers already set to return to Malaysia, illustrating just how dependent on others Indonesia is for jobs, human rights observers will have to wait and see who has the upper hand, and if the new rules make for positive change, or if it will be a return to business as usual.

Working from the ground up

The abuse of domestic workers in Malaysia has long-since been documented, and international pressure often conjures a response from a government that tries to avoid criticism. Despite high-diplomatic measures to force Malaysia to act, much of the day-to-day support and awareness campaigns are carried out by local grass-roots level advocacy groups. One of those organisations based in a Kuala Lumpur suburb is Tenaganita.

In an unassuming house on the side of a busy four-lane thoroughfare, Tenaganita goes about its business of helping migrants. Complimenting the work of the MTUC, which focuses many of its efforts and campaigns in step with government officials, Tenaganita is far removed from the high-level boardroom talks. In fact, it finds itself locked out of government access, not by choice but by circumstance, which now defines its work.

Launched in 1990, Tenaganita was created in response to issues facing migrant plantation and electronics industry workers, all of whom were men. But it soon became evident that there were growing problems within the domestic workforce of women that garnered increased attention. Today, much of the organisation’s focus has shifted to helping the workers shielded from public view.

Since the mid-nineties Tenaganita has held a reputation for going head-to-head with government policy without fear or consequence. The fallout from a 1995 report revealing the inhumane conditions of migrant domestic worker detention centres in Malaysia saw founder Irene Fernandez charged with ’maliciously publishing false news’. In 2003 she was sentenced to a year in prison.

Although the conviction was overturned in 2008, Tenaganita was blacklisted within Malaysia and thrown to the outside of official efforts to curb worker abuse. But by being labelled a misfit, the group grew stronger by having nothing to lose. The result is an organisation that routinely speaks out against the government and is creating change from the ground up.

Tenaganita consultant and program Manager Aegile Fernandez has made her life’s work protecting domestic workers. She became involved in the early eighties when large groups of Filipino women were arriving in Malaysia for domestic contracts. Delivered in droves by recruitment agents, the women experienced the same issues of abuse that are still common today. “We would undertake rescue missions to save workers kept in captivity by agents,” she recalled.

Originally much of her work was carried-out under the umbrella of the Catholic Church because of Filipinos’ religious affiliations. The result of the ‘rescue’ efforts would be the first contract drawn up to protect the workers, making the Philippines “one of the best examples of domestic worker progress.”

Despite the success, everything changed when an aggressive recruitment campaign targeting Indonesians began. It was 1990 and Malaysia was opening its doors to the markets, and workers in all sectors were needed to push the country into the 21st century. Along with being cheap, Indonesian domestic workers were preferred for religious and linguistic similarities while the Philippines sent its workers elsewhere to avoid abuse and receive larger pay-cheques. It took little time for the problems to begin with the Indonesians.

“I cannot understand how Malaysia with such an affluent society cannot treat its domestic workers with respect,” she said bewildered. “Many of them here are malnourished, or being starved to death.” She cited cases of workers surviving only on biscuits and noodles for food, once or twice daily. Such tactics leave the workers barely strong enough to continue their work, but powerless and too weak to flee or fight for better conditions. Through an arrangement with the police, Fernandez and her team continue to rescue workers living in abusive households. Often it is up to an understanding neighbour to call since the women have no way of reaching out for help.

“We look case-by-case and decide when to take the initiatives for rescues, with the assistance of neighbours,” she said. Even with the approved day-off in the MOU, it is up to the domestic worker to request it. A requirement she says has no way of being monitored. To counter a lack of resources, Tenaganita is shifting its efforts toward employers and agents.

Due to high incidences of runaways within the Indonesian workforce, the group is using the example of the Philippines with mandatory days off. One day-off per week will allow women to attend skills training sessions, counselling, and enjoy social time with other workers. The programs are even targeting agents and employers to bring their workers in to resolve issues before they get out of hand, preventing problems instead of dealing only with the fallout.

Even with its blacklisted status, Tenaganita still approaches foreign governments to wield influence.

“We are telling the governments: you are sending healthy girls here and we are sending broken girls back... It’s now a problem for you.” Adding that not only are countries returned an unhealthy workforce, but the medical costs drain the system.

It is a reoccurring theme in Malaysia where changes are initiated outside of the country to ensure that rules are observed. When asked why her country cannot improve the situation alone, Fernandez attributed it to the society’s lack of empathy.

“It is the mentality of even using the word ‘maid’ or ‘servant,’” she said, that dehumanises the women. “Because they come here to earn, they cannot protest.”

She traces the problems to the increase of wealth and entitlement in Malaysia’s society which has led to less sharing, and less respect for people who must work more to make a living.

“You talk about Asian values, and what are Asian values?” she asked. “The values are respect, and we now have a generation that has lost that respect.”

An increase in education for the employers she says is needed to alter the social fabric. She increasingly encourages employers to help educate the women, either in language at home or by sending them to school. The positive outcomes will improve both the women’s personal lives and their situation at work.

Standing beneath Kuala Lumpur’s twin towers, one easily sees where the immense wealth is invested. As money continues to be poured into new construction projects, the foundation of the country’s moral imperative teeters, eroded through the chase of riches. With women set to return in huge numbers, the time is now to make the change reality before it crumbles beyond repair.

A special report By Andrew King