Millions of Asian women working overseas are feeding their families, and boosting the economies of their countries, by remitting billions of dollars home. For their pains, all too often they are subjected to forced confinement, poor working conditions and in some cases, severe physical and sexual abuse. Women now make up more than 75% of registered migrant workers from Indonesia, 70% from the Philippines, and 69% from Sri Lanka. The World Bank estimates that Indonesia has three million women working abroad, with Saudi Arabia and Malaysia as primary destinations. Most of these migrant workers are concentrated in poorly regulated sectors such as household domestic work.
Some of the worst abuses include terrifying physical and sexual abuse by employers. One Indonesian domestic worker I interviewed was raped daily in Malaysia, but didn't feel she could flee her abusive employer until she had worked for three months to pay off the debt from her recruitment and placement fee. Research by Human Rights Watch focusing on Indonesian female migrant laborers in Malaysia shows a wide range of abuses against domestic workers, many of them routine.
One of the most common abuses we documented were excessively long working hours and lack of rest days-Malaysian labor laws provide protection to all other workers under Part XII of the Employment Act of 1955, but specifically exclude domestic workers when it comes to regulation of working hours, rest days, public holidays, and termination of contracts. As a result, domestic workers in Malaysia often work grueling 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week. They are often confined in the home and earn less than 25 cents per hour. Arianti H. (not her real name), aged 27, told Human Rights Watch, "If my employers went out, they locked the door from the outside and took the key." Another worker, Tita S. (again, not her real name), aged 24, said, "I would wake up at 5 a.m. and go to sleep at midnight, sometimes 1 a.m. or 2 a.m…. Every day was full of work, every week was like that, there was no day off…. There was no time to rest."
More than 1,000 Indonesian women have sought refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur since early 2003-and they are the lucky ones.
Others who encounter mistreatment or exploitation may be doubly victimized by Malaysia's stringent immigration laws. Instead of receiving help, Indonesian domestic workers who escape abuse in their employers' homes risk being classified as illegal migrants and may be indefinitely detained and deported. While in Malaysia, I managed to catch a cabinet member at a trade fair. I pulled him aside to hand over a personal copy of Human Rights Watch's report on the dire conditions faced by the more than 200,000 domestic workers in Malaysia and to share some of our main recommendations.
When I raised seven-day workweeks and forced confinement, he told me that if you give maids a day off and let them out of the house, they will run away. All his aides and the surrounding journalists smiled and nodded in agreement. This attitude shows that some Malaysian government officials at least are in denial about abuses and howcommon they are.
In an official response to our report, Human Resources Minister Datuk Fong Chan Onn said that all foreign workers in Malaysia have legal protection and that, although there are isolated cases of abuse, "99% of the maids are being treated well."
Both Indonesia and Malaysia benefit economically from the massive migration flows from Indonesia to Malaysia. Both countries have failed to ensure that migrant workers enjoy basic labor and human rights protections. The threat of Malaysia turning elsewhere for cheap labor has to date served as a disincentive for Indonesia to press for basic protection for its workers. Indonesia has also failed to respond effectively to the abuses that take place on its own soil before migrant workers depart overseas. Human Rights Watch documented extortion by labor agents during recruitment, forced confinement for up to six months in overcrowded pre-departure training centers, and cases of prospective domestic workers being trafficked into forced labor.
However, in the wake of recent high-profile abuse cases, Malaysia and Indonesia are currently negotiating a bilateral agreement on domesic workers, and Indonesia's parliament has begun to discuss a migrant workers bill. The outcome of these measures will be a test of the two governments' commitment to provide protection for migrant domestic workers. Such protections should include: standard contracts, basic labor rights, domestic workers' right to organize, regular and independent oversight of workplace conditions and labor agencies, and support services for victims of abuse. The Malaysian government should amend the 1955 Employment Act to provide domestic workers with equal protection under the law, including regulation of work hours and rest days. Though they are struggling to survive themselves, migrant workers send home significant portions of their income. Asian governments should not continue to stand by as thousands of migrant workers endure abuses.
Nisha Varia is Asia reseacher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.