Siti, a single mother with two young children, saved money, and borrowed the rest, to pay an agency to find work as a maid in Malaysia. She refused to go to Saudi Arabia, as one of her aunts who worked there had been sexually abused by the employer, and no action had been taken.
Within minutes of arriving at her employer’s house, her passport was confiscated. She was unaware that it was an offence to take the passport of another person, and has since found out that the employer took the passport as a form of “insurance” so that she would not run away.
Siti was deloused, even though she said that she did not have any nits in her hair, and was given coal tar soap, to scrub herself clean. She was told to dress conservatively and not to gaze into the eyes of the male members of the family.
Her possessions were laid out on a table and inspected. Her “mobile” was taken off her, ostensibly so that she would concentrate on her work.
She was made to wake at the crack of dawn and she could only sleep when all her duties were done. Her duties included washing the car, inside and out, and gardening. Sometimes she would be sent, for several days, to clean, cook and care for the families of her employer’s grown-up children. She later found that this contravened the terms of the contract, which the agency had given her.
As if to make her feel better, her employer said she ought to be thankful that her duties did not include having to bathe a dog, or handle pork.
She was warned that her wages would be docked if she were to break any crockery.
She burnt the rice, because she did not know how to adjust the heat of an electric hob. Most of the gadgets in the house, like the vacuum cleaner and microwave oven, were new to her. At times, she was unable to remember the instructions and was often verbally abused, and called stupid.
She burnt a dress, which she was ironing, because she was not sure how to adjust the temperature for synthetic fabrics. She was slapped across her face and called names in a manner that would make the owner of a brothel blush.
When she happened to chat with the neighbour’s maids across the fence, she was told-off for neglecting her chores.
When the teenage sons of her employer went out clubbing, they refused to take a key. So, she would be rudely awakened in the early hours of the morning to open the doors to allow them in.
When food and drink went missing from the fridge or larder, she was blamed.
She also found that her letters had been opened and scrutinised before she read them. She worked seven days a week, even when she was ill.
The above is a compilation of stories from Indonesian maids whom I have interviewed. Some still work in conditions neither you nor I would accept. Some return home, in a box.
Yesterday, Aegile Fernandez, a director at Tenaganita, lamented the lack of outrage by Malaysians at the death of the Indonesian domestic worker Adelina Lisao.
The answer is simple. Many Malaysians do not care.
The majority are self-serving and are afflicted by the “me” culture. Poorly enforced laws and lax punishment will not deter employers from mentally, physically and sexually abusing their maids.
Employers act as if they own the maids. Our society suffers from apathy, and the “don’t care” attitude is present from the individual right up to the crony who runs the agency and the heads of enforcement in the various government departments.
Would Malaysians work for a pittance in the conditions I described above? Some of the households spend more on a family birthday bash or in an upmarket restaurant than their maid’s monthly wage.
We will only learn when Indonesia stops the supply of maids, and our society starts to care and have some compassion for other human beings.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.
The views expressed by the writer are her own and do not necessarily reflect that of FMT.