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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

DOMESTIC STRIFE

Household workers are feeling the pain of the economic downturn

By Todd Crowell


Cheated Employers and Agencies are fleecing Indonesian maids

Booted doors are closing on Asia's imported laborers

Working Conditions in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia

ON A BUSY SINGAPORE street stands a small house that serves as a shelter for Philippine domestic helpers who have run into trouble. These days the embassy-sponsored facility is packed to capacity. More than four dozen women have found their way there, usually penniless, sometimes frightened, often with no more possessions than the clothes they are wearing. The women while away the day chatting, playing cards and worrying. They are waiting for their day in court, waiting to get back pay or waiting to go back home to the Philippines.

One of the temporary residents, 29-year-old Virginia, says she was regularly beaten up and verbally abused by her employer. "She hit me with an umbrella or a tennis racket. She kicked me if I overcooked her food or did something else she didn't like," she says. Four months ago, Virginia decided she had had enough. She fled and filed a complaint with the police. Then she took shelter at the embassy halfway house. Now she is waiting for her case to be heard in court.

Life has often been difficult for Asia's overseas domestic helpers. Allegations of mistreatment are not new. Nor are counter-charges from employers of maids who cheat, lie and embezzle. But the economic crisis has made things tougher for both sides. Household budgets are tight, inducing some employers to sack, underpay or overwork their helpers. Money lost on the stock market or in other investments can turn husband against wife and both against the domestic helper - particularly if she is seen as a drain on financial resources.

With unemployment rates steadily rising around the region, governments are taking action to protect the jobs of locals. Illegal migrants are being repatriated in their tens of thousands. In January, the Malaysian Immigration Department introduced regulations aimed at reducing the number of new maids by raising the monthly income threshold for sponsors. There are about 200,000 domestic workers in Malaysia, most of them Indonesian. Some are working illegally.

Hong Kong continues to welcome new helpers - the number is up from 164,000 in 1996 to 175,000 this year - but layoffs are also increasing. The monthly figure for prematurely terminated foreign helpers rose from about 1,700 last November to about 2,300 in March. Not a drastic jump, perhaps, but a sign of the times. Josephine Ong, an executive member of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers group, expects the number of layoffs to rise if the economy continues to slide. Since the onset of the crisis, many Hong Kongers have been squeezed between rising interest rates on mortgages and low pay increases. Others have lost their jobs or live in fear of losing them. "Employers are going to be hardpressed; it's foreseeable," says Ong.

She maintains that the policy of a minimum monthly wage of $500, which is designed to protect helpers from unfair treatment, could now be working against them. Those employers who cannot afford that sum have no option but to terminate their maid, Ong says. "One has to consider very carefully whether we should cancel the minimum wage level." She believes that many foreign domestic workers are willing to come to Hong Kong for a lot less than $500.

She is right about that. Already some employers are breaking the law by hiring staff at below the minimum salary. Women from South Asia are often underpaid, as are some Thais. The latest victims are Indonesians. Filipinas are more organized and better informed about their rights. But even they experience problems. Catalina, 24, resigned after her family proposed to nearly halve her wage. "My employer told me that if I was not going to agree to it, I would be terminated," she says.

But Catalina's problems did not end there. She was dismissed by her new household even before she started work. "The employer said she couldn't hire me because the family had run into financial difficulties," she says. Since November she has been jobless, staying in a hostel run by her union and being supported by an aunt who also works as a helper.

Under the Hong Kong Labor Ordinance, helpers are entitled to the same statutory holidays, rest days, long-service severance pay and other entitlements as other workers in the territory. But employees' associations such as the Asian Domestic Workers Union say it is common for the rules to be bent, particularly if employers try to "maximize" the return on the salary they pay. A rest day technically means 24 hours without work, but maids sometimes leave the house only after the baby is fed or breakfast is served. Then they may be required to be back by 8 p.m. Statutory holidays are given grudgingly, say union representatives. With household pursestrings tightening, helpers are asked to work for other members of the family in other parts of the territory or even as unpaid assistants in the family business.

Neither Singapore nor Malaysia has a minimum salary for helpers. Wages are negotiated individually, though some embassies suggest standard terms. According to the model contract promoted by the Philippine embassy in Singapore, domestic helpers should receive a starting salary of about $176 a month, with one day off a week. (Employers also pay a levy of about $200 a month to the government.) Helpers should be provided with lodging, food and medical care, and a minimum two-week home leave between two-year contracts if they are renewing with the same employer. Washing the car, bathing the dog (for Muslims) and massage services are theoretically out of bounds. That's the theory. Reality can be quite different.

After a spate of bad publicity over maids being physically abused by employers, Parliament recently toughened penalties. Offenses such as offending the modesty of a maid now incur a maximum $880 fine and/or 18 months' jail, up from $588 and one year in jail. Nominated MP Claire Chiang has called on the government to now draft a standard employment contract and extend to domestic helpers the same protections afforded other workers.

Despite repeated requests from Asiaweek, the Singapore government declined to say precisely how many domestic helpers work in the republic. The Philippine embassy says about 80,000 of its nationals are registered as maids. Since the controversial 1995 execution in Singapore of Flor Contemplacion, embassy staff seem more concerned about safeguarding the interests of Philippine helpers. Contemplacion, 42, was hanged after being found guilty of the murder of another maid and a child in the maid's care - setting off condemnation in the Philippines of both the Singapore government and the Philippine foreign ministry. When maids experience problems these days, the embassy usually intervenes on their behalf with local officials.

The Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur only half-jokingly describes itself as the busiest foreign mission in the Malaysian capital. "There's always a problem concerning domestic helpers," sighs information officer Nawawi Hasbi. Most complaints deal with terms of employment; a few involve physical abuse. "We've made 100 reports to the police," says Hasbi. "Nearly half have gone to court, but usually the maid just wants to return to Indonesia." Occasionally, both Indonesia and the Philippines have imposed temporary bans on exporting maids to protest local indifference to abuse.

Aegile Fernandez, who works with migrant women in the Tenaganita support group in Kuala Lumpur, says they receive about 10 complaints a month. "We had one case where a maid was burnt with a hot iron," she says. "In another, the employer - a woman - went into a rage, stripped the maid and stuffed an object into her genitals. The maid escaped by climbing over a fence with the help of neighbors who had heard her screaming. Both times, the women wanted to go back to Indonesia. We got some compensation from the employers."

Of course, the tales of abuse and mistreatment do not tell the whole story. For many thousands of foreign domestic helpers, the experience is genuinely rewarding - economic downturn or no economic downturn. Many earn more money abroad than they could ever hope to do at home, where jobs, especially for women, are hard to come by.

At the St. Francis Xavier Church in Petaling Jaya on a Sunday, Filipina helpers are joking and chatting as they wait for Mass. Connie Casaola, 39, nattily dressed in black jeans and boots, says she has happily worked as a helper in Malaysia for 10 years. "My contract has always been respected. My employer treats me like one of the family. It all depends on who you're working for." It also helps to know your rights and to defend them.

- With reports by Agnes Cheung/Hong Kong, Mangai Balesagaram/Kuala Lumpur and Andrea Hamilton/Singapore

Prices reported in Asiaweek are in U.S. Dollars unless otherwise specified.


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