The hands of a 19-year-old Indonesian domestic worker working in Malaysia, are seen as she talks about her experience of being beaten by her Malaysian employer, in a shelter at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on November 5, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - Malaysia and Indonesia should complete a pact on the status of migrant domestic workers that would include basic labor protections, Human Rights Watch said today in advance of International Women's Day on March 8. Proposed revisions to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries does not yet include guarantees for a minimum wage, freedom to leave the workplace on a weekly day of rest, or accessible complaint mechanisms.

Approximately 300,000 domestic workers, most of them from Indonesia, are employed in Malaysia.  Many work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for wages of 400 to 600 ringgit (US$118-177) a month and typically must turn over the first six to seven months of their salary to repay exorbitant recruitment fees.  Some suffer physical or sexual violence from employers.  Malaysia's main labor laws exclude domestic workers from key labor protections guaranteed other workers, such as a weekly day of rest, limits to working hours, workers' compensation, and paid leave.

"Malaysia's laissez-faire approach on domestic workers ignores the huge disparities in bargaining power between a woman trying to escape massive unemployment in Indonesia and her Malaysian employer," said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The shockingly low wages for many domestic workers and other shameful conditions make a compelling case for government intervention."

The two countries are revising a 2006 MOU regulating migration of domestic workers. The 2006 agreement falls critically short in protecting migrant domestic workers' rights, Human Rights Watch said. It allows employers to keep workers' passports, lacks clear standards on a minimum wage or rest periods - including a weekly day off - and does not establish clear penalties and enforcement mechanisms.  Large numbers of complaints from domestic workers of nonpayment of wages and a series of high-profile abuse cases in 2009 led Indonesia to suspend migration of domestic workers to Malaysia until new protections were provided in a revised agreement.

After several bilateral meetings and missed deadlines, Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed on a few revisions that will allow domestic workers to keep their passports and have a weekly day of rest. However, the two governments still disagree on Indonesia's demand for an 800 Malaysian ringgit ($US237) minimum wage, and employers will have the option of paying a worker to forego the day of rest, a provision that can be abused easily. The negotiations to date suggest that rights such as freedom to form associations and reasonable limitations to hours of work will not be covered in the agreement, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged the Malaysian government to reform the system that ties a worker's visa to her employer, giving the employer power to repatriate her at will or deny permission to transfer jobs. The two governments also have yet to announce stronger measures to curb abusive recruitment practices. The current limits on recruitment fees are widely ignored.

"These governments should not wait for more horrific cases of abuse before they guarantee equal human and labor rights for women employed as domestic workers," Varia said. "Malaysia and Indonesia should mark International Women's Day with a commitment to protections that meet international standards."

Improving treatment of domestic workers also requires effective complaints and enforcement measures, such as wide dissemination of information about rights and responsibilities for employers and employees, random inspections, and strong penalties for violations.  At present, domestic migrant workers in Malaysia seeking redress through the criminal justice system face formidable barriers, such as lengthy trials and requirements for monthly special immigration passes.

Without minimum standards, working conditions among domestic workers vary greatly, Human Rights Watch noted. The Philippines requires that its domestic workers in Malaysia earn at least US$400 a month and be allowed a weekly day off.

"Some domestic workers get good employers and good working conditions; others get abusive employers and exploitative working conditions," Varia said. "The Malaysian and Indonesian governments need to act decisively and comprehensively so that a domestic worker's fate is not a matter of luck."

Human Rights Watch said that Indonesia and Malaysia should revise the draft Memorandum of Understanding to include:

  • A commitment to extend equal protection under Malaysia's labor laws to domestic workers, specifically Section XII of the Employment Act of 1955 and the Workmen's Compensation Act of 1952;
  • Provision for a standard contract that ensures minimum labor protections, including a 24-hour rest period each week, a fair minimum wage, a limitation on weekly hours of work, and benefits;
  • Mechanisms for timely remedies for migrant domestic workers in cases of abuse, and to institute sanctions for employers and labor agents who commit these abuses;
  • Stronger regulations governing recruitment agencies, including the elimination of the practice of deducting salaries to repay excessive recruitment fees, and mechanisms to monitor and enforce these standards;
  • Guarantees that workers may leave the employer's house outside of working hours and form associations and unions.

Excerpts from recent Human Rights Watch interviews with Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia:

"To pay for the recruitment costs, I had a pay cut for six and a half months. My salary is 500 ringgit. I was mistreated by my employers. I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and went to sleep at 2 or 3 a.m. I never got a day off. I had no rest. The door was always locked. I could never go out [alone]; I could only leave the house when my employer goes out with me."

Wati S. (not her real name), age 36, Kuala Lumpur, February 11, 2010

"I wanted to help my family with money. The agent told me I would work for two years and receive 600 ringgit a month. I had to wake up at 6 a.m. and make breakfast. The employer said I could sleep at 10 p.m., but then the wife would make me iron clothes at 1 a.m. The employer said, ‘I will keep your salary, when you want it, I will give it to you.' But when I asked for the money because my mother was sick, she got angry [and did not give it to me]. I did not receive a salary for ten months."

Nining W. (not her real name), age 20, Kuala Lumpur, February 11, 2010