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March 2000, Volume 7, Number 3

Malaysia: Maids

Indonesians living in Malaysia clashed with Malaysians in February 2000, prompting calls for tougher rules on foreign workers, many of whom live on rubber estates near Kampung Limau Manis (near Kuala Lumpur); about 300 were arrested. Many of the Indonesians were employed in the construction of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but did not go home when their contracts expired. Malaysia requires Indonesians arriving on tourist visas to have at least M$1000 when they arrive.

There were 697,219 registered foreign workers in Malaysia in February 2000, including 517,766 from Indonesia; 129,000 from Bangladesh; 30,500 from the Philippines; 3,280 from Pakistan; 2,888 from Thailand.

There are 150,000 foreign maids working in Malaysia, mostly Indonesians, and the Malaysian government has promised to do more to curb abuses. Incidents of Malaysians abusing maids have become front-page news—in one case, a man reported his wife to police after she allegedly battered their Indonesian maid, who was paid $97 a month. The woman, who has pleaded innocent, could face up to seven years in jail if she is convicted.

Dozens of maids or "amahs" have fled their employer's homes after the newspaper reports of abuse, and newspaper columnists ask why Malaysians mistreat their amahs. Farish A. Noor, secretary general of International Movement for a Just World, says "the presence of these outsiders helped to build the Malaysian economic miracle in the first place... It was thanks to the scores of Filipina and Indonesian maids and domestic helpers that thousands of professional Malaysian women were allowed to work, shop, travel and enjoy a life of ease and independence."

The Human Resources Ministry is considering new safeguards to stop employers attacking foreign maids, including requiring them to be at least 25, making random checks and requiring employers of maids to provide them with workers compensation insurance. Other foreign workers in Malaysia have been provided since 1996 with worker's compensation which, at a cost of M$86 a year, provides a M$4800 repatriation payment and compensation payment if a foreign worker is injured and cannot work. Employers can be fined a maximum of M$20,000 or jailed two years if they fail to provide such coverage for their workers.

A study of Indonesian maids in Malaysia concluded that many are trying to escape social problems in their villages; many of the maids interviewed were abandoned or divorced by their husbands or their husbands had taken on another wife. Once in Malaysia, the maids find that the work is harder than they expected, and many have problems with language, employer behavior and unfamiliarity with modern household appliances.

Since March, 1997 Singaporean employers of foreign maids must show that they can cover foreign maids with workers compensation insurance policies worth at least M$23,000 before work permits are granted or renewed.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress called on the Malaysian government to develop clear guidelines on foreign worker recruitment. The MTUC noted that the government periodically announces "zero tolerance" for illegal worker policies, and then relents when employers complain. The MTUC asked: "Will the government be firm in its decision to deport all illegal workers, irrespective of their country of origin or length of stay in Malaysia, or will it accede to the wishes of employers intending to employ them by granting them work permits, and thereby legalizing their initial entry into the country?"

The Cabinet Committee on Foreign Workers announced in February 2000 that foreign workers cannot be employed for 138 categories of skilled and semi-skilled jobs, including musicians, haj executives, tour executives, catering executives, mechanical machinery operators, insurance agents, real estate agents, share dealers, wiremen and site supervisors. The ban is an effort to prevent "employers taking the easy way out by employing foreigners and ignoring local workers."

“Call for clear guidelines on foreign workers,” Business Times, March 1, 2000. Muharyani Othman, "Why Indon maids prefer to work in Malaysia," New Straits Times, February 29, 2000. Ian Stewart, "Action demanded over maid abuse," South China Morning Post, February 16, 2000.