In Malaysia, a refuge for abused domestic workers

Posted: January 7, 2008 in Hot News
In Malaysia, a refuge for abused domestic workers
Migrant workers await justice, sometimes for years, in a dorm behind the Indonesian embassy

By Sarah Stewart\n
AFP, KUALA LUMPUR
Sunday, Jan 06, 2008, Page 12

Suryani Enas, eight months pregnant after allegedly being raped by a Malaysian volunteer security corps officer, sits on her bunk bed at a shelter for abused migrant maid workers in the compound of the Indonesian embassy in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov. 14.
PHOTO: AFP
Countless millions of Asian women leave their homes to work in foreign countries, and in a quiet dormitory behind the Indonesian embassy are some of the casualties of this mass migration.

Some of them have been beaten, raped or tortured with scalding water and hot irons, and nearly all have been treated like slaves and not paid for months or years of exhausting work.

Now they wait for their cases to be resolved via mediation with resentful former employers, or make their way painfully slowly through Malaysia’s court system, before they can return to their villages and towns.

Malaysia is a relatively prosperous nation whose citizens have come to rely on foreign workers to care for their children, clean their homes and work on plantations.

But every year about 1,000 women come to the barracks-style accommodation built behind the embassy on a main thoroughfare in Kuala Lumpur, along with about 20 newborn babies — often the product of sexual assault.

“I would tell other girls not to come here — just look at what happened to me,” says Suryani Enas, eight months pregnant after allegedly being raped by a member of a feared volunteer security corps accused of persecuting migrants in Malaysia.

Tini Suratni, her face marked with pustules from chicken pox she contracted at her former work place, sits at a common area at a shelter for abused migrant maid workers in the compounds of the Indonesian embassy in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov. 14.
PHOTO: AFP
In a common tale, Suryani explains she ran away from employers who refused to pay her for three years of work, only to find herself in the clutches of the officer who held her captive — handcuffed and gagged — for a month.

The case is now before the courts, but it could take years to get a verdict and the 20-year-old is anxious to return to her home in the Indonesian island of Lombok and raise her child the best she can.

“I was forced to be pregnant, and now I’m forced to love the child,” she says simply as she holds her swollen belly, smiling bravely despite her ordeal.

The rights group Tenaganita (“Womanpower”) says Malaysia is home to some 300,000 foreign domestic workers among a migrant workforce — both legal and undocumented — of more than three million.

It argues that foreign domestic workers here are made highly vulnerable by a lack of legal protection which subjects them to any working conditions an employer sees fit.

“We can safely say we are one of the worst states, the country that least protects foreign workers including domestic workers,” Tenaganita migrant worker advocate Florida Sandasamy says.

“Domestic workers do not have days off, they can work 24 hours a day — there are no rules,” she says. “There is absolutely no protection for them, because the employment act only goes as far as paying workers their wages.”

In contrast, women who come from the Philippines, whose government insists on contracts enshrining regular days off and payment, are rarely victims of abuse and earn up to four times the US$120 monthly wage of many Indonesians.

“Sad to say, Indonesia and the other countries do not share the same policies,” Sandasamy says.

Up to 100 women live at any one time at the Indonesian embassy’s shelter, a simple but scrupulously clean structure built in 2004 that is one of several around Asia and the Middle East.

Some stay for a few days, some for years.

The women keep themselves busy with washing, cleaning and cooking, but mostly spend their time sitting around quietly, often exchanging their stories of mistreatment at the hands of their Malaysian employers.

Many still bear the scars, scalds and wounds inflicted on them as recently as days before. Most are destined to remain anonymous, but the case of one of them, Nirmala Bonat, has achieved national notoriety.

Photographs of her dreadful injuries, allegedly inflicted by the Malaysian woman she worked for at an upmarket Kuala Lumpur condo, were splashed on the front pages of newspapers when she was discovered in 2004.

The 23-year-old says that after accidentally breaking a mug, she was abused every day until her breasts and back were covered with burns from a hot iron, and her face was swollen by regular beatings.

The alleged culprit has been brought to trial, but three years have gone by and it is nowhere near a conclusion.

“I’m hoping that the whole case is resolved as quickly as possible so I can return to Indonesia,” Nirmala says in a voice barely above a whisper.

“I really regret coming here. This was my fate. Some people are lucky and get good jobs, but I was very unlucky,” she says before breaking down in tears.

Sandasamy says that the protracted legal process is extremely damaging for women like Nirmala, who inevitably sink into depression as they are forced to put their lives on hold and endlessly relive the trauma.

“Very few cases go to court and the ones that do take a very long time. So where is the state’s responsibility? If the employer is not taken to task, they become arrogant and feel they can do anything they want,” she says.

Indonesian diplomat Tatang Razak, who heads the embassy’s anti-abuse task force, says he can barely believe the treatment meted out to women who end up at the shelter, who also include many victims of sex trafficking.

Newspaper reports detail accounts of women allowed just one bowl of rice a day, allowed only a few hours sleep on the kitchen floor and made to wash dog kennels despite their Muslim beliefs.

Tatang says the situation has improved in recent years as Indonesia has demanded better treatment for its workers, but there are still tensions with the government uneasy about having so many here.

“Previously they welcomed Indonesians to Malaysia — until 1970 it was very easy to become a Malaysian citizen,” Tatang says. “Now that has all changed. They consider there are too many Indonesians. Their economy is advanced and they think they don’t need the workers.”
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