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.
(©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
(© 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.
Fairness 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.
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.