Malaysiakini Letter

M'sia-Indonesia MOU: No joy for domestic workers

Irene Fernandez  |  Published:  |  Modified:

There is nothing for domestic workers from Indonesia to celebrate in the new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on Monday between Malaysia and Indonesia.

This new MOU has further dimmed the lights on the protection of basic human rights of domestic workers.

The two-year moratorium by Indonesia, has therefore failed to result in effective changes to increase the protection of its workers' rights.

In January 2006, after the deaths of two Indonesian domestic workers, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, released a joint statement during a consultation at Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra, which stated that the MOU on the placement of domestic workers to Malaysia will promote the protection of human rights.

The Indonesian government was clear at that consultation that domestic workers' rights should be guaranteed under Malaysia's labour regulations. There was then, a glimmer of hope for domestic workers.

In June 2009, Malaysia's Minister of Human Resources, Datuk Dr. S. Subramaniam, announced that a new provision will be made to the Employment Act which will provide a mandatory one-day off a week for all domestic workers.

Two years later, this has not materialised.

The newly signed MOU, however, states that ‘a one-day off can be compensated with overtime payment'. The ambiguity of this is frightening - how will the Ministry monitor that such payments are made to the domestic worker?

Our experiences in handling cases of domestic workers demonstrate clearly that even monthly wages are often not paid, what more with overtime work?

As long as domestic workers are not recognised as workers under the Employment Act, domestic workers will continue to be treated as servants without any rights, and the state remains complicit in creating slavery-like practices.

In the past four years, Tenaganita has handled more than 380 cases of domestic workers with over 3400 human rights violations.

This situation reflects that one domestic worker goes through multiple forms of rights violations including rape and other forms of violence.

In the past four months, out of the 28 cases handled, 40 percent of domestic workers have alleged sexual abuse and rape.

The issue of rape is at an incredibly serious state in Malaysia, especially with the recent announcement by Polis Diraja Malaysia that every two hours, a woman in Malaysia is raped.

As horrific as that is, the actual figure may in fact be a lot higher when factored in the number of unreported cases of domestic workers who are kept hidden in private homes, raped and eventually deported.

Tenaganita is also very disappointed that the Indonesian government has not kept to its commitment to ensure its citizens are protected in Malaysia.

Domestic workers work in isolated and individualised work environments, which facilitate a plethora of rights violations and bonded labor.

It is critical, therefore, that the State ensure their full protection of rights through a standard contract of service, and a decent wage structure.

It is ridiculous for the Indonesian government to justify its failure to negotiate for better wages by stating that wages in Malaysia are acceptable as long as they are not lower than Indonesia's minimum wage, of RM212/month.

It is a bitter irony that Deputy Minister of Human Resources, Senator Maznah Bt Mazlan, has recently stated the Malaysia government will soon introduce a minimum wage as 38.8 percent of Malaysian workers currently earn less than RM750/month (which is below the poverty line), while we systematically discriminate against domestic workers from poor communities whom we depend on highly in this country.

The Malaysian government's refusal to a basic decent minimum wage for domestic workers is a clear sign that the government wants to maintain this acute exploitation of domestic workers in the country.

Malaysia's Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (2007) clearly states that servitude, long working hours and debt bondage are all elements of labour trafficking.

The newly signed MOU, however, by failing to state proper terms and conditions for the recruitment and employment of domestic workers has failed to take cognizance of this act.

It is highly disturbing that both Malaysia and Indonesia in its MOU continue to support practices of modern-day slavery.

The world community sits down together on the 1st of June for the 100th International Labour Conference in Geneva, with a focus on determining a new Convention for Domestic Workers to address the needs and rights of one of the most exploited and abused labour sectors (consisting mainly of women and children).

However, the silence and invisibility by both Malaysia and Indonesia is both deafening and deeply concerning.

It is with utmost urgency that Malaysia must awaken itself to the call to establish international standards of rights for domestic workers through the new convention.

It is indeed a sharp contradiction that while Malaysia seeks to hold on to its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, it continues to deny domestic workers the realisation of basic human rights and dignity.


IRENE FERNANDEZ is Executive Director of Tenaganita.

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