Death of maid in Malaysia highlights endemic foreign worker abuse (video)

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The torture-murder of a 24-year-old Indonesian maid in her employers house in Malaysia last week is just the tip of the iceberg of a litany of human rights abuses foreign workers there are subjected to.

A 20-minute documentary that shows the horrific abuse of Indonesian maids in Malaysia Journeyman Pictures

Abuses that regularly result in workers who arrive in Malaysia full of dreams of improving their life and sending money home for the education of their children, instead returning home with broken bodies, shattered spirits, or as in this case, dead.

While Malaysian officials have attempted to play down this latest killing, claiming abuse of foreign workers is a rare occurrence, the facts belie this.

Commenting on this latest incident, Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, pressed for Kuala Lumpur’s firmness in handling the case, and said “this kind of incident has happened frequently”.

“Stern prosecution actions are needed to give a shock therapy to other Malaysian employers so that they would not abuse, but treat Indonesian workers based on their rights”, he said.

This view is echoed by Irene Fernandez, director of Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, a non-profit organization focusing on migrant advocacy, who said incidents such as this are “happening too often”.

Maids subjected to rape and physical abuse

45 Indonesian workers have died in Malaysia so far this year from a variety of causes, including torture by abusive employers -- Irene Fernande
45 Indonesian workers have died in Malaysia so far this year from a variety of causes, including torture by abusive employers — Irene Fernande Journeyman Pictures

According to Ms Fernandez, 45 Indonesian workers have died in Malaysia so far this year from a variety of causes, including torture by abusive employers.

The NGO has documented more than 1,050 human rights violations ranging from rape to physical abuse over the last two years.

An average of six to seven violations were recorded per case, but in more serious cases, there can be up to ten violations. The most common violations are non-payment of wages and physical abuse.

“As long as the Malaysian government does not address this fundamental issue, such incidents will continue to happen. We should feel ashamed of such incidents”, she added.

In this latest incident the body of a 24-year old woman named Kunarsih (who like many Indonesians used only one name) from Demak, Central Java, who had only been working in Malaysia for four months, was found bludgeoned to death in the home of her employer in Pucong Perdana, Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian police have detained the employer, Goo Eng Keng, but are still looking for his 29-year-old wife, Chen Pei Ee, who went missing after the incident.

 It’s because of torture

According to reports, the young woman had bruises all over body and died from blunt force injuries to her chest and abdomen. This has led to claims that the woman had been tortured prior to her death.

Nirmala Bonat after receiving medical treatment in May 2004
Nirmala Bonat after receiving medical treatment in May 2004 AFP

This view was supported by Tatang B Razak, head of the task force for the Protection and Service of Indonesian citizens at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, who said “her whole body was swollen . . . it’s very clear that it’s because of torture”.

In 2004 Indonesians and Malaysians alike were outraged and repulsed when a 19-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, Nirmala Bonat from Kupang, West Timor, was found by a security guard at Villa Putra Apartments in Jalan Tun Ismail, an upscale condominium complex, crying, severely bruised, and bleeding from the head and mouth.

Ms Bonat said that she was abused for the first time when she accidentally broke a mug while washing it, and for the previous five months her employer’s wife would abuse her everyday with a hot iron, pouring hot water on her, and using other objects to hit her.

Photos of the woman’s burned and scalded body that appeared in the media created such an outcry due to their horrific nature that the Malaysian government was forced into issuing a rare public apology over the incident, expressing disgust and shame.

The wife of Ms Bonat’s employer, 35-year-old mother of four Yim Pek Ha, was accused of having poured boiling water on her, beating her, and pressing a hot iron on her breasts and back as punishment for mistakes in ironing clothes. Following her rescue Ms Bonat was treated for second and third-degree burns.

The maid burnt herself claims abusive employer

Yim Pek Ha, accused of abusing Indonesian domestic worker Nirmala Bonat
Yim Pek Ha, accused of abusing Indonesian domestic worker Nirmala Bonat Journeyman Pictures

As is typical in such cases in Malaysia, a day after the arrest of his wife, Ms Bonat’s employer filed a complaint against the maid, saying that the wounds on her body were self-inflicted and accused her of stealing RM10, 000 (about US$2,870) from his home.

Despite being charged with four counts of causing hurt with dangerous weapons and facing a maximum of 80-years imprisonment, or promises by senior Malaysian politicians, including Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, that maximum penalties would be applied, the case is still ongoing.

While Yim is free to continue her life unimpeded, released on RM85,000 ($24,300) bail, due to immigration rules Ms Bonat is confined to a shelter at the Indonesian embassy.

Foreign workers, particularly those employed as domestic workers, have few rights in Malaysia, specifically excluded from most standard labour protection laws that cover other workers.

Malaysia is second only to Saudi Arabia in the number of Indonesians working as domestic workers, with Indonesians the lowest paid of those working in this field.

Indonesians paid less than Filipinos

Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia typically work 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and earn around $3.30 (Rp31,000) a day. This is half the amount of a Filipino domestic worker, who only has to work six days a week, is paid.

There is a pattern to the abuses reported against Indonesian domestic workers -- H Rushdihardjo
There is a pattern to the abuses reported against Indonesian domestic workers — H Rushdihardjo Journeyman Pictures

This salary discrepancy, according to Indonesia’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Dr H Rushdihardjo, is because, “Indonesian maids don’t have the same level of skills as Filipino maids. The primary difference is that Filipina maids speak English, whereas Indonesian maids can just do cooking and cleaning”. (Ed: and speak a similar language to Malaysians)

The majority of employers retain custody of their foreign workers passports and Indonesian domestic staff are not permitted to carry cash for the first two years of employment.

In addition, it is not uncommon for employers to refuse to allow Indonesian domestic workers to write or telephone their families back home, and the majority are confined to their work premises.

Most are forced to live with employers, though many are not even provided with a room of their own, sleeping with the children they look after, or even on the kitchen floor. Many do not receive their salary until the end of the standard two-year contract.

Ms Fernandez, said many domestic workers suffer psychological, physical, and sexual assault by labour agents and employers, and “at the end of the day, we consider such practices bonded labour”.

Over the years NGO’s and the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur have received thousands of complaints from domestic workers about working conditions, wages, or abuse. Each month more than 1,500 Indonesian maids run away from their employers, citing abuse, dissatisfaction with long working hours, lack of freedom of movement, or unpaid salaries as the reason.

The number of Indonesian workers running away from employers and seeking refuge at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reached such a magnitude that a few years ago it was forced to build a two story compound inside the embassy grounds to accommodate them.

Even now more than 100 Indonesian domestic workers were being sheltered at the embassy after complaining about abusive employers.

Eka Suripto, an official at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said the lack of enforcement and prosecution of abusive employers was compounding the problem.

Complaining employees face counter complaint

“Once we finish with the relevant processes, we have to negotiate with the employers for a settlement, such as unpaid wages, and then send the women back to Indonesia”.

On the death of Kunarsih, Mr Suripto said “certainly this matter will be further investigated. But the lack of law enforcement is leading to an increasing number of maid abuse cases”.

The number of Indonesian workers running away from employers and seeking refuge at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reached such a magnitude
The number of Indonesian workers running away from employers and seeking refuge at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reached such a magnitude Journeyman Pictures

According to Dr Rushdihardjo, there is a pattern to the abuses reported against Indonesian domestic workers. If it’s sexual it’s the Indians, if it’s physical it’s the Chinese, and the Malays don’t pay”, he said.

In a double whammy, many foreign workers who flee their abusive employers find themselves being prosecuted under Malaysia’s immigration laws and jailed instead of receiving assistance.

Because most employers keep the employees passports, it’s difficult for the foreign workers to prove they are in the country legitimately. Others who have demanded unpaid wages often end up being reported for threatening or assaulting their employers.

In rare cases where a domestic worker does lodge a complaint against an employer, inevitably the employer lays a counter charge that the worker has stolen from them, and/or inflicted the injuries herself. Malaysian police are more disposed towards proceeding against the foreign worker than against their fellow citizens.

Malaysia refuses to sign worker protection declaration

While each time the case of an abused worker is highlighted the Malaysian government mutters its regret and makes statements it will come down hard on abusive employers, the abuses continue to occur.

Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister, Radzi Sheikh Ahmad doesn't think Indonesian domestic workers should be given a day off
Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister, Radzi Sheikh Ahmad doesn’t think Indonesian domestic workers should be given a day off Journeyman Pictures

Ms Fernandez says, “each time there is a reaction that something must be done, but there has been no political commitment to see it through”.

This lack of political commitment was on show earlier this month when the Malaysian government refused to sign a declaration aimed at improving the levels of protection provided to foreign migrant workers at the 40th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Ministerial Meeting (AMM).

Titled, The Statement on the Establishment of the Asean Committee on the Declaration of the Protection and Promotion of the Migrant Workers, the declaration was supposed to show a forward movement in protecting and guaranteeing the rights and status of foreign workers.

While Asean heads of state had agreed to sign the declaration during the leaders’ summit hosted by the Philippines in Cebu last January, the signing of the declaration at the AMM would have elevated it to a more legally binding arrangement.

The declaration particularly called for stronger protection and improved conditions for migrant workers in the region, and assigned “obligations” on both the “sending” and “receiving” states. However, despite all prior indications it would sign the document, Malaysia withheld its signature at the last minute.

Minor improvements for Indonesian domestic workers

More than 1,500 Indonesian maids run away from their employers each month
More than 1,500 Indonesian maids run away from their employers each month Journeyman Pictures

Malaysia’s stubborn resistance to providing levels of protection to domestic workers is as well documented as the cases of abuse it allows to happen.

It was only last year, after more than four years of intense diplomatic lobbying and pressure by Indonesia, that Malaysia finally passed a law that salaries of Indonesian domestic workers had to be paid into a bank account in their name, and that salaries needed to be banked each month.

However, the new law, which came into effect in June of last year, gives employers a period of up to two years to comply and will not affect Indonesian domestic workers already working in Malaysia. Employers will only need to abide by the new arrangements when renewing their employee’s two-year contracts.

Under the agreement employers will also be required to sign personal contracts with their domestic workers stipulating the wages agreed upon by both parties. Domestic workers will be required to sign a letter of acceptance before they can start work.

Employers are also barred from withholding pay for the first five months of a contract, as is often the practice now.

Prior to this agreement the first five months of an Indonesian domestic workers salary was paid to Indonesian agents who claimed it was to cover the costs incurred in sending the domestic worker from Indonesia.

While a step in the right direction, the new arrangements only apply to Indonesian domestic workers and are not applicable to those from other countries.

Malaysia refuses to set a minimum wage for Indonesian domestic workers

Radzi Sheikh Ahmad said the reason why Filipina maids get paid more is that the Philippines have set the rate in their law
Radzi Sheikh Ahmad said the reason why Filipina maids get paid more is that the Philippines have set the rate in their law Journeyman Pictures

One major hurdle in the two countries not reaching agreement earlier was Indonesia’s attempt to secure a minimum monthly wage of RM500 ($143.00) per month, a demand that the Malaysians refuse to succumb to.

Tan Sri Mohd Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister, said the reason why Filipino maids get paid more is that “the Philippines have set the rate in their law.

“Indonesia has asked, but we’ve said no, because we’ve got 320,000 Indonesian maids in Malaysia and if we say there is a fixed wage our employers — Malaysians — will say ‘no, no, no, I can’t afford to pay that”.

He also does not think Indonesian domestic workers should be given a day off. He claims, “you work in the house. You are part of the family. That’s how Malaysians accept maids here. There are so many of them here. If they went out it would create a lot of problems”.

In response to the high number of maids who flee their employer each month, a labor law introduced in 2006 allows domestic workers to change their employer twice during the two-year contract of employment.

However, the domestic worker ‘must reimburse the first employer based on the period of actual service rendered and then charge the new employer fees and levies proportional to the remaining period of the worker’s contract’.

In spite of the publicity generated over Kunarsih’s death, it was only a matter of days before another Indonesian domestic worker, identified as Parsiti, made headlines as she attempted to flee from her abusive employer.

According to local media reports Parsiti was forced to climb out the window of a 17th-floor apartment to escape her employer, who she claimed strangled her and beat her with a rattan stick. This was the second incident in two months where an Indonesian domestic worker had been forced to seek escape from abusive employers by exiting through a high-rise apartment window.

Just days later Tenaganita and Malaysian police rescued 148 abused Indonesian maids in the Klang Valley after receiving over 200 calls through its domestic workers action line.

25% of Malaysia’s workforce are immigrants

1.2 million of Malaysia's workforce are immigrants from Indonesia
1.2 million of Malaysia’s workforce are immigrants from Indonesia Journeyman Pictures

Malaysia remains one of the largest importers of foreign labor in Asia. Approximately 25 per cent, or between 2.5 to 3 million out of its 11 million workforce is comprised of foreign migrants, primarily employed in manufacturing (33 per cent), palm oil plantations (23 per cent), domestic service (26 per cent) and construction (18 per cent).

Of this figure only some 1.8 million are legal and have valid work permits. Official Malaysian government figures show 1.2 million of the foreign workers come from Indonesia.

While Malaysia has made headlines over the brutal sweeping campaigns it conducts to find illegal workers, along with the mandatory caning of those who overstay their visa, the country seems to have an insatiable appetite for imported labor.

Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) executive director, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ariff, claims the number of foreign workers in Malaysia is expected to exceed five million by 2010.

Much of this growth will be in the construction industry, with the current ninth Malaysian Plan (9MP) setting a growth target of 3.5 per cent in this sector alone.

The majority of modern Malaysia’s towering skyscrapers, as well as the administrative capital of Putrajaya, was built by foreign labour. The first person buried in the Putrajaya cemetery was an Indonesian construction worker killed on the job.

Malaysia depends on its cheap workforce

Complex of the Sessions Court where Yim Pek Ha's prison sentence was upheld
Complex of the Sessions Court where Yim Pek Ha’s prison sentence was upheld Wikipedia

Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Director, Shamsuddin Bardin, says foreign workers are employed in the three D jobs that Malaysians don’t want – dirty, dangerous, and difficult.

The country also has the largest number of domestic workers in Asia. More than 400,000 domestic workers are currently registered with approximately 90 per cent, or 360,000, from poor rural areas of Indonesia.

In addition, it is estimated there is up to another 20,000 undocumented Indonesian women employed as domestic helpers.

Human rights groups and NGO’s have long tried to highlight the litany of human rights abuses taking place against foreign workers in Malaysia, but often these reports and abuses attract little attention, even in the local media.

Conditions are unlikely to improve in the near future, however. Just as Malaysia depends on its cheap workforce, Indonesia relies heavily on the many billions of dollars sent home by its citizens working abroad. Money that is spent on educating their children and building homes in their villages.

Indonesia needs to do much more to protect the rights of its foreign workers if its domestic workers are not going to continue to be abused and killed.

Indonesian government support lacking

Indonesian maids recount their agonies in the hands of their employers
Indonesian maids recount their agonies in the hands of their employers Journeyman Pictures

In March 2003 Indonesia temporarily suspended issuing visas for those wanting to work as domestic workers overseas. Officially, the ban was implemented so they could be better trained, but Indonesian MPs had complained that they faced abuse abroad.

Perhaps it’s time to impose such a ban again. As well as time to crack down heavily on the unlicensed labor traders who prowl the nations villages and send uneducated, untrained, and ill-prepared young women off to the abusive households of Malaysia, in exchange for a handful of rupiah.

The only way to reduce incidences of abuse and violence against domestic workers is to ensure that their rights are protected.

This is the role of Indonesia’s lawmakers. The only way to ensure Indonesian domestic workers receive a more realistic reward for their labour is to establish skills training centers that, at the very least, put Indonesian workers on an equal footing with their counterparts from the Philippines.

In the meantime, Malaysian politicians need to stop giving only lip service to the problem and set minimum punishment laws for abusive bosses to show that they truly value the contribution these workers make to their economy.

To assist their citizens, Indonesia should also follow the Philippines example and set a minimum daily or monthly wage for its citizens working abroad, thereby giving foreign governments the tools they need to enforce it.


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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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2 Responses to "Death of maid in Malaysia highlights endemic foreign worker abuse (video)"

  1. Rita James- USA   August 17, 2010 at 9:36 am

    i feel so pity for nirmala… its good that Yim pek ha was sentenced… she doesnt have any rights to hurt any body… may god bless nirmala always… get well soon nirmala…

  2. Cialis   March 7, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!


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