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Our Humanity: Waiting to be reclaimed

March 8, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Katrina J Maliamauv, via e-mail

There is something fundamentally disturbing with us as a nation when we have normalised in our vernacular the reference to people as ‘commodities’, the hiring of foreign workers as ‘imports’ and ‘supply’ and the phrasing of the systematic abuse and enslavement of domestic workers in Malaysia as ‘that maid issue’.

A columnist for the NST lamented on March 4, 2012 that there is ‘much ado over the maid issue’. Is there, really? Much ado about it? So much ado that despite a prolonged moratorium and re-written MOU between Indonesia and Malaysia on the hiring of Indonesian domestic workers, there are still far too many loopholes and escapes in it that allow, once more, for institutionalised trafficking of domestic workers in our country?

Yes – institutionalised. Our policies and accepted practices create a state of bonded labour and trafficking for migrant domestic workers. Most domestic workers are not allowed to hold onto their passports; if caught without documents, all migrants can be arrested, detained, deported and even whipped (if they are men).

The control over their fate therefore lies with their employers; most domestic workers are denied a single-day off for rest, a right all of us take for granted; most domestic workers have between 4 to 6 months off their wages deducted – for 4 to 6 months, they essentially work without pay – a reality none of us will accept. These are norms that we have accepted for migrant women, but all of which we would balk at if enforced on us.

There is something inherently wrong with us as a people when we cry out that we are unable to live our lives without stepping on the backs of foreign women from poorer countries who come to work in our homes. The story quoted by the NST columnist of a Malaysian woman in a two-income family that is struggling to care for their children because of their work demands and without the support of an extended family is indeed distressing – but it is not a reason for us to justify keeping foreign women in our homes as 24/7 “servants”, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, care-givers and seamstresses with suppressed wages.

The reality that Malaysian families cannot put food on the table, roofs over their heads and clothes on their back without both parents working full-time is not the result of the failings of the Indonesian government. Answers to this distress call therefore cannot lie in us demanding that the Indonesian government overlook the basic rights of its citizens so that we can keep functioning as families.

We must take our own government to task for the debilitating cost of living, the stagnated wage-growth and the crumbling social support structures that we experience. And columnists with empty pages and plentiful ink have the moral and civic responsibility to hold this government accountable for policies that destroy our society and suffocate our families. Directing this frustration at foreign governments is not only senseless, it also allows these destructive policies and practices by our own State to continue hurting us.

There is something nauseating about an entire community of people who are willing to overlook the hundreds of unsolved cases of domestic workers abused and tortured within their own homes, just so they can quickly resume hiring women to clean their dishes, wash their clothes and mind their children.

In the past few years, Tenaganita has handled hundreds of cases of foreign women who have been beaten, tortured, kept in isolation, raped, deprived of food, denied their wages and harassed in the homes of Malaysians. When there is documented evidence of domestic workers whose Malaysian employers stuff their mouths with cockroaches and hot chillies, scald them with boiling water, lock them up in tiny rooms without adequate ventilation, make them work 16 hour days, attack their faces with fish scrapers, slap them for talking to the domestic worker next door, and treat them as invisible slaves who don’t deserve to laugh, love and live dignified lives – how can we continue to turn our heads and beat the drum of ‘isolated cases’ and ‘alleged abuse’?

We have disengaged ourselves from our own humanity when we are willing to sacrifice the lives and dignity of another person, just so we can live our lives a little more comfortably. Whether or not we have personally inflicted violence and abuse directly on a domestic worker is immaterial here – as members of a community, we have an obligation to ensure that the rights of all persons within that community are protected, promoted and defended.

There is no exit clause where rights are concerned – we cannot opt out from protecting the rights of someone else just because they are a migrant, they are poor, or they work for us. Neither can we stand by idly when we know that violence is systematically being committed under our watch. Because of the pervasive and institutionalised manner in which domestic workers are enslaved in Malaysia, we are all accomplices.

There is something frightening about a nation that refuses to speak the truth about violence, torture, abuse and slavery. Except for a smattering of activists and blessed Malaysians who are bleeding from their mouths as they shout to all who may listen of women who are tortured and trafficked in our homes, the vast majority of this nation has shut its eyes and silenced its lips to these known truths.

What has blinded us? And what more, has sewn our eyelids shut with threads of iron? Apathy? Ignorance? Selfishness? A sense of our own entitlement? The idea that the role of women is to serve us? The belief that migrants are lesser beings than us? I do not know what the answer is, but I know this much to be true – as a community of people, as a nation, as Malaysians, we should be terrified by how far we’ve removed ourselves from our collective conscience.

We need to stop making excuses for unpaid wages, for deprivation of food, safety, security and liberties, for the enslavement, rape and torture of domestic workers in our homes; We need to stop using language that degrades people and diminishes the realness of violence: people are not commodities and slavery is slavery; We need to start holding  our government and each other accountable for what happens in our midst, and we need to call on our better selves to prevent these horrors from ever happening again; and

We need to realise that the moment we accept these horrors for someone else, we eventually accept them for ourselves. There is something deeply unsettling about a community that cannot envision being a better people. We did not smash our moral compass by accident; we actively made a choice to be hurtful and cruel, and we passively watched as others did the same.

We made excuses for inaction on our part, and we clucked our tongues unhelpfully when our government did not take the actions we needed them to. We made our bodies busy when our minds were told uncomfortable stories, and we circled ourselves with others who did the same. We tell ourselves that the problem is bigger than ourselves, and we ignore that that makes us a part of the problem.

We spend so much time not looking, unhearing, deleting, justifying, ignoring, excusing – but why? Have we forgotten that we can be better? Or do we no longer know how to? There is something powerful and healing about a community that celebrates each other. Our value and strength as persons and as a collective society is contingent on how we treat each other – each one of us, without the divisiveness of gender, economic status, race, religion , sexuality, nationality and immigration status. Yes, immigration status.

Migrants, and migrant women in our homes are part of this community. If we do not begin by accepting this, by challenging our fears of ‘the other’, our prejudices and biases and by dismantling our patriarchal schemas, we will never be able to heal the deep wounds to our collective conscience. If we do not begin by re-thinking how we, as individuals, feel about the invisible foreign women in our homes, we cannot possibly begin to create a community of kindness, liberation and justice for all. Our collective humanity is right there. Waiting to be reclaimed. Will we?


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