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Who’s afraid of Indonesian maids?

Photoshopped image of iron chucked at Chua Soi Lek
Chua Soi Lek questions the impact of giving a day off to domestic helpers

MAIDS are people too. But you would not think so judging from the shockingly negative response from employers of domestic helpers to government legislation making one day of leave per week mandatory. Opposition to this law has laid bare the knee-jerk tendencies and racism of certain segments of Malaysian society, despite transparent attempts by employers to couch their disapproval in minarchist, or limited-government, terms.

MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek fired the first high-profile salvo on behalf of the naysayers when he wrote a blog entry questioning the wisdom of such legislation. He opined that the congregation of maids on leave could potentially make parts of the city feel “un-Malaysian”, and suggested that they would be susceptible to being hoodwinked by other foreigners into committing crimes that could possibly endanger their employers’ lives.

Let’s ignore for the moment that these comments were primarily targeted at Indonesian domestic helpers. After all, the Filipino government, through various alphabet soup organisations, has been largely successful in enforcing the one-day leave minimum for its nationals working overseas. Instead, let us first look at our legal responsibility to provide fair working conditions for domestic helpers in general.

Legal imperatives

Close-up of someone ironing cloth
(©Sulaco229 / sxc.hu)

Article 2.2(j) of the recently ratified Asean Charter proclaims that member states will “[uphold] the United Nations Charter and international law, including international humanitarian law, subscribed to by Asean Member States”. This includes Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which reads: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”

While it is true that the UDHR is not a treaty, it was formulated to define the terms “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights” as used in the United Nations Charter. The UN Charter is binding on all member states and, as has already been shown above, is a charter Asean claims to endorse. This would seem to indicate that we have an obligation from the point of view of international law, if not sheer decency, to ensure that domestic workers enjoy full labour rights, regardless of the impetus that first got the ball rolling.

In any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that giving foreign domestic workers some time off from the workplace might actually improve employer-employee relations and lower incidences of abuse in both directions. If this premise is true, it would be in the best interests of all parties involved that laws for periodic respite be created. No one can endure a stressful work relationship for long, whether due to a demanding boss or an underperforming employee, without blowing off steam from time to time.

The Indonesian dimension

Silhouette of woman with mop
(© Roma Flowers / sxc.hu)
Returning to the Indonesian dimension of this issue, the common perception is that Indonesian domestic workers are less educated and more naïve than their Filipino counterparts. Thus, Indonesians are perceived to be more likely to fall prey to the machinations of Indonesian criminal gangs operating within our borders. More specifically, the worry is that Indonesian domestic workers will be coerced into abetting home invasions conducted by these gangs if they are allowed to mingle freely. The available statistics, however, do not seem to bear out the popular assumption that such crimes are common, despite frequent accounts in the media to the contrary.

According to a report by ACP Amar Singh Sidhu for the Journal of the Kuala Lumpur Royal Malaysia Police College, crimes involving foreigners accounted for about 2% of total index crimes (including house-breaking) committed in Malaysia between 1980 and 2004. Of this percentage, 62% of crimes were committed by Indonesians.

In fact, Sidhu says, “foreigners on average commit about 3.8 crimes per 1,000 foreign population, whereas Malaysians committed 5.3 per 1,000 population”. This means that, on a per capita basis, a Malaysian is more than doubly likely to fall prey to another Malaysian than to an Indonesian. And this is after taking into account the presence of undocumented, or “illegal”, Indonesian workers.

True, it is not possible to establish if the particular category of home invasion is a specialty of Indonesian gangs, given the available data. But it does establish a sense of proportionality sometimes missing from the debate regarding crimes committed by Indonesians in Malaysia.

police cap asks 'someone snatched your bag? what do you expect us to do about it?' while speechless face looks onFairness and relevance

To be fair, one must also take into consideration the views of employers who dread the worst should a domestic worker-facilitated home invasion occur. These can be said to be legitimate — insofar as paranoid worries are. But if we are, in any way, serious about the issue of crime, we should instead really be taking to task the police and, by extension, the administration. After all, these are the bodies that have such strange priorities that they are unable to cope with what appears to be increasing lawlessness in our country.

Nevertheless, it is better to direct the relevant problem to these relevant parties, rather than to react in a way that dodges the fact that we are really talking about a crime-related issue. If we paste our xenophobic anxieties onto our worries about crime, it would be no better than misreading the symptoms of a disease that is slowly but surely killing us.

As much as domestic workers deserve a day off, so are we entitled to a life that does not revolve around the constant fear that an enemy within the city will one day let in the proverbial barbarians at the gate. But let’s be clear that it is the barbarians who are the problem. By focusing narrowly on this mandatory leave legislation, we ignore the true question of governmental ineptitude in the face of rising crime while simultaneously fobbing the cost of our fears onto domestic helpers. And they have no choice but to pay the price in terms of basic, decent working conditions.Favicon


Yow Hong Chieh holds a BA and had a wonderful live-in helper for more than 10 years, all of which were home invasion-free.

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21 Responses to “Who’s afraid of Indonesian maids?”

  1. Noel Dass says:

    I like the direction of your article. We are so quick to blame the foreigners for all manner of criminal activity in our country, but do so without sound statistical and logical basis. Malaysians aren’t the saints we suddenly think we are in this regard. Certainly, the onus on fighting crime should be on the police, who should focus on tackling this problem rather than trying to run the country!

    P.S. I absolutely LOVE the image of CSL with the iron!

  2. sohhai says:

    That’s because you are one lucky fella to have a good maid.

    My maids have runned away so many times that I have lost count.

    Giving them one rest day is fine.

    Let them keep their passport is fine.

    Then who is going to compensate us when the maid runs away?

  3. mooitau says:

    It is not the fear of letting the maids take a rest day, but more of them mixing with the wrong company and subsequently being a security risk to the family. By the way, the thousands of maids that disappear or run away from the boss’s home, how come none are caught and punished for being illegal?

    Because our own authorities are corrupt – so long as these maids can cough up RM500, they get off scot free and are able to leave Malaysian shores and go home and then come back again legally through, I believe unsuspecting agents, and then disappear again – see so simple.

  4. Andrew I says:

    It would seem that, like priests and monks, maids should also be required to take a vow of celibacy to work here.

    Given half a chance, some Malaysians will squeeze the last drop out of their almighty ringgit.

    Indonesia has now officially stopped their maids from coming here to work. So, it wasn’t just for domestic consumption, as prematurely speculated by some.

    Good for them. It shows that despite a history of crimes against humanity, they’re willing to start making amends.

    How would we feel if any of our own working overseas had to endure this kind of abuse?

  5. Opah says:

    It is pure racism, simple as that. Malaysians have no problem with granting Filipino maids a day off every week but when it comes to Indonesian maids, all kinds of objections are raised. What these Malaysians are actually saying is that Indonesian maids have lower morals/are more prone to commit crime/are more pre-disposed to “running away” than their Filipino counterparts.

    The fact is that Indonesian maids, like those from other countries, have chosen to leave their families and friends behind in order to better their economic conditions. The primary motivation is to earn enough money to be able to help their families back home.

    As domestic workers, they are entitled to the basic rights of any worker – a decent wage and reasonable working conditions.

  6. mala says:

    The crime statistics are on criminals arrested by the police. The police is absolutely hopeless in catching Indonesian criminals because they are without any attachment to this country – no IC, no permanent address, no relations, blend in with the millions of legal and illegal workers. Even their names and passports can be changed at will.

    Therefore, the statistics quoted by you are useless. Too many ordinary and elite Malaysians have fallen prey to these Indonesian criminals. We know the true picture and the police cannot help us at all but now the government wants us to facilitate these criminals by letting the maids collude with them!

    Good luck, Malaysia!

  7. Shao Loong says:

    While I applaud this article I cannot resist nitpicking a few issues:

    1. Do the knee-jerk reactions of Malaysians to an off day for domestic workers constitute “racism”? I think the reaction is better characterised as one grounded in a mix of xenophobia and class prejudice to foreign domestic workers rather than one rooted in a pseudo-biological concept of “race”. Clarifying the nature of prejudice is helpful towards redressing it.
    2. Malaysians are “more than doubly likely” on a per capita basis to be victims of Malaysians than foreigners. If this is based on comparing the rate of 3.8 crimes per 1,000 (foreigners) to 5.3 crimes per 1,000 (Malaysians), then the math appears faulty, 3.8 x 2=7.6, no?
    3. We should also not forget, nor excuse, the deplorable statement by Suhakam commissioner Khoo Kay Kim on this issue, where he said that domestic workers would use their off day to be “naughty”. It shows an appalling lack of understanding of human dignity and rights for a human rights commissioner.

  8. Nicholas Aw says:

    The maid issue has generated a lot of debate and I would like to offer my two-sen worth of opinion. I am of the opinion that there will be more problems in giving a day off to the domestic maids. The recent cases of maid abuse have been linked to stress related reasons and it is thought that a day off will be good for both employers and employees. But I beg to differ because providing a day off is like “getting out of the pan and into the fire”.

    If the concern of both the government and the Indonesian authorities is that maids get abused, action could be taken to charge those responsible to the maximum the law can provide. This will send a clear message to both employers and employees that they will face the wrath of the law. Why punish all employers for the crime of a few?

    If international laws require a day off be given to maids, I am sure that they can be compensated with extra payment for the work done on an off day. I believe most maids would be happy with such an arrangement as this means that they get more money at the end of the month.

  9. Karcy says:

    This issue depresses me so much I have no comments, but I need to congratulate the graphic designer for what might be the best accompanying illustration I have seen on TNG.

  10. siburpat says:

    Maids should be banned until their employers became human and not slave drivers or sex abusers. These minority groups of employers have blackened our image and it is good that the respective governments have recognized enough is enough. After all there are a lot more groups who are flooding the legitimate market of maid services.

  11. tkwah says:

    1. Indonesian maids are not the best in the world. In fact, their “range” is so wide and unpredictable that it is safe to say there are thousands of employers who have been or are going nuts managing them.

    2. Malaysians are not the perfect employers. The decision of the Indonesian government is good for all parties:

    (a) it forces Malaysian employees to become more independent at least once a week;
    (b) it encourages Malaysians to be more open to new opportunities eg maids from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc.
    (b) it allows Indonesia to send more maids to other “more civilized” and wonderful countries eg Saudi Arabia.

    Out of every adversity come new opportunities

  12. Andrew I says:

    Parts of the city feel “un-Malaysian”.

    Where? Jalan Bukit Bintang?

  13. I liked your ending, Yow, but it’s too bad there are no statistics that count.

    ACP Amar Singh Sidhu’s numbers are funny. He says, “foreigners on average commit about 3.8 crimes per 1,000 foreign population, whereas Malaysians committed 5.3 per 1,000 population.” Please note that offences by foreigners is measured against the “foreign population.” Are the the 3.8 crimes commited strictly against foreign nationals?

    Sounds like the sample size is tainted.

    It’s always nice to see a shout-out to the UDHR and it’s compelling reading. It’s also nice to know that Asean ratified a charter in support of it. But ratifying UN treaties or declarations without any action is par for the course with Malaysia.

    As Zedeck reports on the Penan report, signing Cedaw and the indigenous peoples declaration hasn’t stopped the government from treating young Penan girls as collateral damage. Malaysia has also ratified the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. One of the provisions of the convention is to notify every child of their rights.

    Hands up if you know what that is.

  14. Hong says:

    Sohhai, compensation should be an issue to take up with the agencies that hire out these maids in the first place. They should be held in surety as sponsors of immigrant workers. At least then we might weed out what someone called ‘cowboy agencies’ that pretty much hire any old person without due consideration to character, skill set and fit.

    Admittedly, I am unclear as to the degree to which agencies are currently held accountable should their maids up and go but I suspect it is rather lax. There also needs to be liberalisation of the country-of-origin quotas imposed on the domestic helper sector (or in general, for that matter). This is so employers can better choose whom they wish to employ, whatever the reasons for their preference, and the market will be able to push out disagreeable workers and agencies. But that is another story.

    mooitau, the article makes the point that the desire of employers to keep maids from mixing with the ‘wrong company’ is fueled by the presence of criminal elements within the Indonesian migrant community – the same elements that are present in any community – which the police have so far failed to tackle earnestly.

    We should not, therefore, deprive maids of their right to limited working hours as a response to the inability of the police to act effectively. The point you made about the corrupt practices of the authorities merely underlines the fact that a more responsible and responsive culture needs to be inculcated within our enforcement agencies.

    mala, as much as I agree that official statistics are, more often than not, spun for the benefit of the government, at least they bring some numbers to the table. In contrast, the anecdotal approach, which usually consists of stories from a cousin of a friend of an aunt, is just that – anecdotal. I was trying to offer a more measured response to the current brouhaha.

    Shao Loong, you are right to point out that xenophobia and class play a significant role in the negative attitudes towards this legislation. But if it were only plain, good old-fashioned xenophobia, we would have similar issues with Westerners working in Malaysia but that is not the case. Thus, it seems to me there is also an element of racism involved, more so given the fact that a majority of these objections were raised by ethnic Chinese employers who appear to view Indonesian maids as something less than human. My bad for not making this clear.

    As for the math, 3.8 crimes per 1,000 foreigners is the per capita rate for all foreigners, and since the total crimes committed by Indonesians constituted 62 percent of this, that works out to be 0.62·3.8=2.36, the average number of crimes per 1,000 Indonesians. 5.3 crimes per 1,000 Malaysians divided by 2.36 crimes per 1,000 Indonesians is 2.25, the multiplier for likelihood. Barring more detailed statistics for crimes committed by foreigners in Malaysia this was the best I could do.

    Nicholas Aw, although the legislation may have been formulated in response to the Siti Hajar case, I do not view it as collective punishment. Rather, I see it more as the long overdue instatement of a right we have unfairly withheld from domestic helpers, Indonesians in particular. Malaysians will not accept an employer who tells them that they cannot have any days off at all, so why should we accept this same ill-treatment when imposed upon others? (And calling maids ‘family’ is no excuse.)

    Charging employers for abusing their domestic helpers is all well and good but there is a power differential in the employer-maid relationship that has to be taken in consideration. I suspect the cases we have seen so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Past studies of domestic helper abuse worldwide indicate that there is a strong likelihood a majority of abused maids suffer in silence.

    Plus, if there is no change to the mentality of some Malaysians, who regard maids as little more than indentured servants, there is arguably more potential for abuse if their employers know they will be locked up in the house all year long and never get to meet people outside. P Gunasegaran made a similar point in his article, ‘Furore Over A Day Off’, in Friday’s issue of The Star.

    With regards to the compensation issue, if the maids choose to exchange leave hours for extra wages, fair enough. But the legislation recognising the right to one day of leave per week has to exist first before such an agreement can be made. You cannot claim overtime while you are still on the clock.

  15. Lee San Chiong says:

    Earning RM600 per month and spend 4 days off and hanging around the city the whole Sunday. How much do you expect them to spend and how much left per month? Good luck to the maid. Can the government allow them to moonlight on Sunday to suppliment the problem of having the extra off day where they will surely ended up poorer which is costed by those supporters of “SundayOff”? Moonlighting … I don’t mean working as a sex worker – if that happens that would be another new problem to solve.

    At the end of the day you are solving one problem to create another 10 problems.

  16. Noel Dass says:

    I never cease to be amazed by the comments on this article. To all those who are so firmly against this ruling to grant domestic workers a day off, try putting yourself in their shoes.

    How would you feel if you had to work 24 hours cleaning up after someone else and their families, without any time off whatsoever!? Can you as a human being seriously handle working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year?? Also, how would you feel if your employer directed your every move and controlled whom you could meet based on what they thought was acceptable?? Regardless how much compensation is offered, I bet you at some point, you would feel like stabbing yourself through the chest or worse, someone else!!

    This basic failure to understand basic human needs is just astonishing! Kudos to Indonesia for stopping their citizens from coming to Malaysia to work as domestic workers!

  17. victor says:

    Why hire Indonesian maids in the first place? Can’t you just have a Filipino maid? please lah …

  18. lizziewong says:

    I had wonderful maids for many years, but over the past year, had the misfortune of having two runaway maids in a row.

    Indonesian maids because of their language and cultural background, add to the fact that we have many red IC (and even blue IC) Indonesians living in Malaysia, the likelihood of an Indonesian maid to make unholy liaisons (for crime or passion leading to security risk for employers?) is high.

    On the contrary, because of the language and appearance, a Filipino or a Myanmar national stands out in a crowd.

    News of Indonesian government stopping their girls from coming to serve as maids in Malaysia doesn’t bother me. Indonesians make good helpers, but sometimes, the risk of them running away or mixing with the construction workers (in my case, the Bangladeshi gardener who works across from my house), their pursuit of happiness and friendship which poses a risk (however remote) to the safety of my own children, is just not worth my trouble. Am I being racist? Well, the fact that the gardener was spotted by my daughter to be squatting outside the maid’s room was too shocking. So when she ran away, it was not such a bad thing.

    With Indonesia closing their doors, can we have Myanmar maids instead?

  19. oneworldmaybenot says:

    Has anyone considered that this one day off may be a back door to illegal work here? Like get job and work visa as maid then disappear once they get day off. Can you imagine the illegal immigrant problem we will have?

  20. majin says:

    Yeah. I had about six to seven maids before, two had sex with neighbours, one ran away with my mom’s jewellery and all, another two stole things and left a letter asking for forgiveness for all the things they stole.

    This is without any day off yet.

    And my parents were never in the newspapers asking for sympathy for all the loss they suffered.

    Even without the day off, Klang now looks like Indonesia already. Some Malaysians are scared to go out of their house because some groups of Indonesian workers hang around playing with knives and all, creating an unsafe environment.

    I am not saying that I agree with all the abuse. I am totally against it. But one day off and letting them have their passport while doing so, let’s just hope the government will have enough money to pay the employers compensation.

  21. Shao Loong says:

    Dear Hong, thanks for clarifying your statistical issue.

    Wrt the relevance of ‘race’. I was careful to pair both xenophobia and class bias, which is why your counter-example of the Western expat (I presume) is insufficient, given that such expats are typically high-pay workers. In fact, I believe we implicitly exclude such Western workers when we speak of ‘foreign workers’ in Malaysia. Thus, I would still hold to a blend of xenophobia AND class bias rather than racism as such.

    The difficulty of saying discrimination towards Indonesians by Malaysians constitutes ‘racism’ is that a) Indonesian is not a ‘race’ or recognised as race by race-thinkers in Malaysia; and, b) many Indonesian nationals are considered to be ethnically Malay, and therefore ‘serumpun’ with ethnic Malay Malaysians. Malay Malaysian prejudice against Malay Indonesians would be hard to categorise as ‘racism’, therefore my suggestion to see it as xenophobia cum class bias.

    However, where racism may enter the picture is in the case of a non-Malay Malaysian who may direct the same prejudice they feel towards Malay Malaysians to Indonesians. However, I never see such people refer to the latter by an ethno-racial label, rather they use nationality. Thus, it is appropriate to classify this as xenophobia.

    I have laboured this point because our thinking about race and racism generally lacks analytical clarity. While the concept of different races of humankind has little scientific basis, it is given life by policy and belief. It has become commonplace to use ‘racism’ to describe prejudice between social groups when there is no conception of biological difference present. ‘Ethnophobia’ may be a more accurate term. Perhaps then we can also introduce ‘ethnophilia’ to describe the privileges accorded to Western expats.


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