Thursday, May 20, 2010

Maid into Slaves

MOST Malaysians would be shocked at the idea that slavery is still alive and well in this country in this day and age. Those who can afford to hire live-in maids to mind their children, cook their food, clean their homes, iron their clothes and wash their cars would take great offense at charges that they treat their servants like slaves, when they come willingly, are paid a wage, and are not beaten, burnt, or clapped in chains. In part this is because the word conjures up old images of cotton-picking, market auctions, bull whips and manacles.

But this is not the stuff of modern-day servitude. And neither is it confined to the selling of women and children to brothels. There are many forms of human trafficking -- the term more commonly used to describe human bondage in its contemporary incarnation -- and its defining characteristic is not the ownership of people as chattel to be traded as in the past but the inhumanity of the indignities imposed on another human being.

While maids in this country may not literally be under lock and key, they are virtually in chains as they are not free to come and go -- their passports are in the hands of their employers or somebody else. By any definition, this is slavery, and so are the grueling hours, DEPRIVED OF THEIR RIGHT TO PRAYERS, IF THEY ARE MUSLIMS AND FORCED TO HANDLE PORK (my words: Lenggong Valley) with few breaks and no days of rest, which the maids work. This is a gross violation of their rights as workers and a grave affront to their dignity as human beings.

Like it or not, we have to confront the uncomfortable reality that foreign maids may be living in bondage in our homes or next door. We can no longer ignore the exploitation of this underclass of domestic helpers who have been keeping our homes well-run. And as long as there is a darker side to the best of people, we cannot leave their fate to the milk of human kindness.

Fortunately, there is now a letter of intent between Malaysia and Indonesia to let the maids keep their passports and to provide them with days off. The challenge now is to find common ground on the outstanding issues of fair wages and recruiting fees.

While it is vital for Malaysia to provide legal protection to maids, it is equally important for Indonesia to exercise more control over the practices of the recruiting agencies and the training they conduct. Above all, what is required is political will and fresh political direction to navigate the frenetic and fractious cross-border debate on immigration.

- From NST Op-Ed 20th May 2010

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