Making visible and gaining recognition as workers

Tenaganita | .

This Labor Day on May 1st, Tenaganita remembers the hundreds of thousands of local and migrant women who raised and continue to raise millions of Malaysian children; who care for the elderly; who clean our homes and clothes; who cook and who carry out the countless chores that need to be done so that our lives are managed and made all the more easier.

On this Labor Day, we think about the 350, 000 domestic workers in Malaysia, women who remain largely invisible and yet essential to our homes and to our country. We urge you to reflect on the hundreds of thousands of women in our homes whose lives continue to be unprotected and who are deprived of the enjoyment of dignity and basic rights; women who in the year 2016, are referred to as ‘servants’ under Malaysian law, who are denied even a single day off a week for rest, who are forced to work months without pay so that employers, brokers and agents can profit from their labor, who are controlled and silenced because we do not recognize them as human persons who deserve to be treated as we wish to be treated ourselves.

On this Labor Day, we remember 318 domestic workers whom we rescued and sheltered,   the last 3 years, we remember the thousands of domestic workers Tenaganita has assisted over the years, and the hundreds of thousands more who remain unidentified,  silently enduring the violation of their rights at the hands of a system and culture that treats them as less than workers and that refuses to recognize their womanhood and identity as a human person.

Last year alone, Tenaganita received and managed 249 cases with 1466 violations consisting of 4011 complainants. The analysis of cases continue to reveal that one case would consist of 6 -8 human rights violations by different key player ranging from employers, outsourcing agents, recruitment agents or different government agencies. The top violations range from long hours of work with no off day, unpaid wages, no contract, withholding of passports and poor living condition, however in terms of domestic workers, Tenaganita has handled 16 cases of child labour, 13 missing domestic workers, 25 cases of sexual abuses, 22 cases of physical abuse, 21 cases of food deprivation , 7 cases of menta abuse that needed immediate psychiatric care, 14 cases of forceful extension of contract and , 62 cases of passports withheld. Various forms of violence were also present in most of these cases, and these forms of rights violations are deliberate and intentional. All the domestic workers showed signs of mental anxiety and uncertainty while a number of them showed signs of depression.

Are these not enough statistics for us and for the government to move into swift preventive actions?  The forms of abuse, torture and exploitation are incredible but real. Out of the above mentioned cases only 2 cases have gone to court for legal redress. In fact, our case management analysis shows police investigations are sluggish, court systems inaccessible, and processes drag on endlessly. Often, the victims drop the cases out of weariness, and go home as they no longer can continue their life of trauma and indefinite waiting. The possibilities of justice is still very distance and inaccessible.

These forms of abuse perpetuated against domestic workers are not isolated in nature or accidental. Dismissing cases as ‘one off’ or ‘in the minority’ is not only a complete denial of the facts, but also undermines the seriousness of the issues. One case is one case too many. In fact, it is clear that the above form of intense rights violations bring about a bonded labor with intense servitude and debt bondage that constitutes trafficking in persons.

These patterns of abuse have been highlighted repeatedly by Tenaganita for more than two decades, and yet they continue to remain the violent reality of domestic workers in Malaysia. The fundamental root cause is the absence of any form of legal protection as domestic workers are seen as servants in law and not as workers.  Thus rights guaranteed for other workers are not enjoyed by domestic workers. The Malaysian government failed to recognize domestic work as work. This non recognition policy opens the gate to exploitation.

Furthermore the discussions by sending countries and Malaysia on the recruitment of domestic workers  continue to focus on ‘maximizing profits’, ‘ensuring supply’, ‘minimizing costs’, ‘maintaining quality control’ and ‘keeping market rates competitive’. Domestic workers through this discourse are reduced to mere commodities; tools to be traded and used in our homes. This continued absence of a human-rights framework to guide the discussions and policies pertaining to the recruitment and employment of domestic workers will only further perpetuate this institutionalized form of slavery. This form of persistent and intentional discrimination of women from the more marginalized groups, speaks volumes of how we respect persons and ensure their dignity. We have ratified CEDAW ( The Convention In The Elimination Of All forms of Discrimination Against Women) and have not lived up to our commitment and accountability.

We hope the Malaysian Government responds to this call to stop slavery and to protect the lives, rights and dignity of domestic workers in Malaysia through by enacting a separate legislation and regulatory mechanisms for comprehensive protection of domestic workers through a standard contract recognizing the core rights enshrined in the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers. and the government must establish monitoring mechanisms for greater accountability and transparency in recruitment, placement and employment of domestic workers with the support of civil society organizations. They must increase and improve access to redress, legal remedies and grievance procedures in   Malaysia for all victims of rights violations and abuse and accordingly improve screening to identify victims of domestic worker abuse and survivors of trafficking, and provide them legal aid, counseling, and recovery as needed.

We as a nation can only be recognized as a people with humanity when we shift our paradigm to recognizing the human person and woman in domestic work. It is only when we accord them these basic rights can we reduce sexual violence and other forms of gender based violence in our homes and in our society.

On this Labor Day, Tenaganita would also like to once again share the documentary film title:  I am not here,  the story of migrant domestic workers who leave their countries in search of security and to provide a life-line for their families back home. These women undergo perilous journeys, risking death, deportation, arrest, physical and sexual violence in the hope of finding a life with dignity.  They live in the shadows, afraid to complain and denied rights and services that we take for granted. This is a film about three remarkable women, one of them in Malaysia and their search for a better future

“Migrant domestic workers are ‘women of love’ because they leave their families to provide for their loved ones. They go to foreign lands to become caregivers in these families and give love to those they look after in spite of the loneliness they face.” (Irene Fernandez, CARAM, Sri Lanka, 2002)

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