Reactions in Malaysian media to Cambodia’s Oct 15 ban on sending maids to Malaysia contain a mix of shame, indignation and a need to stress that most employers in Malaysia do not mistreat foreign domestic workers.
“There are very few bad apples among us,” said an editorial in The Star newspaper on Sunday. “What a reputation we have garnered. How unfair. How exaggerated. And how untrue.”
“Malaysians are generally good to their maids. We are not maid killers,” the editorial added.
While some choose to challenge common opinion that domestic workers are mistreated in Malaysia, Cambodia’s decision to ban sending its maids to Malaysia would seem to be having some effect.
The day after Prime Minister Hun Sen issued his order banning the training and sending of all maids to Malaysia, a report in the New Straits Times quoted Jeffrey Foo, president of the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maids, as calling for the implementation of a “proper management system in the deploying of maids, as this could lead to problems.”
The newspaper reported that Mr Foo’s call aimed to identify “what has gone wrong on our side,” in order to safeguard Malaysia’s reputation as a safe host country for foreign domestic workers, and to “put a stop to abuses.”
For at least one reader of The Star newspaper, however, Cambodia’s ban on sending maids to Malaysia was used as an opportunity to complain about the overall standard of Cambodian domestic workers.
In an Oct 17 letter to the editor, which was published in The Star, a Mr Bulbir Singh wrote that he did not want to see Malaysians “shortchanged” when it comes to the quality of foreign domestic workers, particularly in the case of Cambodian maids.
“We do not want those trained in crowded classes with limited training tools and no English lessons,” Mr Singh wrote.
“We want them to be competent so that they can function effectively in and outside our homes. Cambodian maids can’t speak English and this causes a lot of miscommunication,” he wrote.
Mr Singh added that perhaps Malaysians should consider an alternative to hiring maids from abroad.
“By now Malaysians must learn to do work at home themselves as is the case in many countries in the West. Learn some home skills, it will do you good,” he wrote.
It would also appear that Malaysia has had a long history of poor employer-maid relations, and that violence against Cambodian maids is nothing new.
In a 2008 blog posting by Malaysian national Shireen Yong, “Health Freak Mommy,” a somber light is shone on the tolerance levels some employers have toward their Cambodian maids. And the tolerance for violence against Ms Yong’s unnamed maid.
“She was dilly dallying in the wet kitchen and would only move her butt when I told her what to do,” Ms Yong wrote.
“She should know what to do without being told as she has already been with us for more than 1 month,” Ms Yong continued, adding that she was “fuming mad” when her Cambodian maid steamed a potato – not a sweet potato – for her daughters to eat.
“I then called the maid agent and told him I would like to have this Cambodian maid returned to the agency to be exchanged with the [Indonesian] maid he had originally promised me.”
Ms Yong then describes – with harrowingly few details – what the agent did to the maid.
“The agent did something to the maid, which I did not expect that he would do it at my house…right in front of me. I was really shocked, dumbfounded and for a moment, I felt bad that the agent had done it to my maid, not only once but thrice. My maid was in tears and I felt sorry for my maid. After the agent had briefed the new temp maid what to do, he left with my Cambodian maid.”
One of the first comments written on the “Health Freak Mommy” blog in response to the “bad” incident the Cambodian maid was exposed to states: “well, i am not surprise to what the agent did to her.” (sic)
On Thursday, it appeared that the effects of the Cambodian ban had begun to sink in.
According to The Star newspaper, the Malaysian authorities were scrambling to set up a welfare and protection center. The report quoted Malaysian Human Resources Minister Sathasivam Subramaniam as saying that it was the Malaysian government’s “responsibility to ensure that [the maids) are well protected.”
The Star reported that the center would look into all maid-related issues, but did not say when it would be set up.
“We do not want the actions of a few to affect the image of Malaysia and make us look like a third world country. We want to tell the world that we have the systems and mechanisms to ensure protection of all these workers,” Mr Subramaniam was quoted as saying.
While it is not known exactly how many maids are abused while working in Malaysia, there is plenty of evidence out there that the situation is bad.
In August, Malaysian NGO Tenaganita said it had documented a litany of abuse – physical and sexual – endured by the Cambodian maids it was helping. At least three maids are known to have died while employed in Malaysia over the past year. Malaysian authorities said one woman had died from pneumonia, while the other two had committed suicide.
On Friday, Channel News Asia reported that Jakarta would lift a 2009 ban on sending Indonesian maids to Malaysia on Dec 1. The report said “both sides have agreed to give protection and assistance to the domestic workers.”
The Indonesian ban was put in place following a series of maid abuse cases, but was lifted after steps were taken to ensure that Indonesian maids would be able to keep their passports, get one day off per week, and earn a minimum wage.