The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Protection of Domestic Workers in Malaysia: One step forward, two steps backward?

On 30 May 2011, Malaysia and Indonesia, after two years of negotiation, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on domestic workers in Bandung, Indonesia. The agreement is an improvement over the one signed in 2006 as it provides some forms of protection to migrant Indonesian domestic workers who encountered a wide range of abuses including long hours of work without overtime pay; no rest days; incomplete and irregular payment of wages; psychological, physical, and sexual abuse; and poor living conditions. The most extreme cases of such abuses have resulted in the death of domestic workers at the hands of their employers. In addressing these problems, the 2011 MOU allows migrant Indonesian domestic workers to keep their passports instead of having to surrender to their employers and guarantees them a weekly day off. It also requires salaries of domestic workers to be paid using bank transfers so that evidence of payment can be verified through bank statements.

However, the agreement fell critically short of addressing the rights of domestic workers comprehensively. For example, although the MOU recognises some of the rights of migrant Indonesian domestic workers, they still do not enjoy the full range of rights accorded to other migrant workers by Malaysia’s labour laws such as the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1952 and the Employment Act 1955. As a result, Indonesian domestic workers remain vulnerable to abuse and exploitation despite the signing of an MOU. A recent case of the death of an Indonesian domestic worker at the hands of her employer on 5 June 2011 is testament to the fact that the MOU will not significantly improve their situations.

The MOU also fell short of addressing one of the pertinent issues of establishing minimum wages. In the absence of a minimum wage, migrant domestic workers are paid on the basis of their countries of origin.  As a result Indonesian (and Cambodian) domestic workers earn between USD133 to 200 a month whereas their Filipina counterpart earn USD400. Even as Indonesia and Malaysia failed to improve the wages of domestic workers, they agreed to cap recruitment fees at USD1500. Employers are required to pay the entire amount up-front and are permitted to reclaim up to USD600 by cutting several months of the domestic worker’s salary. Although the agreement stipulates that no more than 50 per cent of the worker’s salary can be deducted each month, such deductions from domestic worker’s already meagre salaries constitutes economic exploitation that may result in debt bondages thereby perpetuating the cycle of abuse and exploitation. The two countries could have reduced recruitment fees further or prohibit the practice of extolling recruitment fees from domestic workers altogether.

It would be a mistake for Malaysia and Indonesia to think of the MOU as a solution to issues afflicting migrant domestic workers. They should consider the MOU not as an end but as a means towards a more comprehensive agreement in the future.

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