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Malaysia, Singapore Struggle With Maid Bans

This picture taken on January 19, 2011 shows a young woman reading advertisements for "maids wanted" outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur.
This picture taken on January 19, 2011 shows a young woman reading advertisements for "maids wanted" outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur.

Indonesia is among the largest suppliers of domestic helpers to Malaysia and Singapore, given the higher wages and demand for foreign labor for the two neighbors.

However, it is cracking down on sending Indonesian citizens to work as domestic workers overseas because of an increasing number of reports of maid abuses.

In September 2011, the ministry of Manpower and Transmigration released a list of countries that Indonesians will send domestic helpers to. The countries are Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

While the ministry has claimed that the list is not conclusive, maid agencies in Singapore are surprised that it has not been named alongside the countries.

The Jakarta Globe quotes the director-general of the ministry's labor supervision and placement unit, Reyna Usman, as saying the government would only allow maids to work in destinations that are strongly committed to their protection.

Indonesia halted sending maids to Saudi Arabia in June, following the beheading of a maid who was convicted of murdering her employer's wife. The ban is presumed to have been lifted after both countries negotiated terms for better maid protection there.

The Indonesian Migrant Worker Trade Union says the omission of Singapore is puzzling, as the country seems to have a better track record of maid protection compared with those on the approved list.

Both countries have denied they are in talks with one another over increasing maid protection policies in Singapore before it gets approval from the Indonesian government to send new domestic workers.

Maid protection policies are at the top of the Indonesian government's agenda, given its heavy supply of workforce to neighboring countries as well as some countries in the Middle East. In Singapore, it is estimated that 90,000 of the maids working in the countries are Indonesians, making up almost half of the domestic workforce there.

It was just several months ago when Indonesia finally allowed its citizens to be domestic workers in Malaysia again, after a two-year ban triggered by several reports of maid abuse in the country.

But not all of the Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia are happy about the new policy, fearing it may end again at some point.

An Indonesian domestic helper by the name of Nur says she is unwilling to return to her home country after knowing about the freeze, because she would be unable to return to Malaysia for work. The mother-of-one has not seen her daughter for seven years, but Nur says at least the wages that she has obtained over the years is sufficient to raise her daughter and provide her education.

Migrant workers flow within Southeast Asia is inevitably active and heavy, given the countries' close proximity both geographically and culturally that makes it easier for employers and employees to adapt with one another.

According to a report by the Asian Development Bank on migration trends, Southeast Asian countries have increasingly benefited from, and in some cases come to rely on, migrant foreign earnings.

There are approximately two million migrant workers in Malaysia, as few locals want to take up jobs in the construction and domestic help sectors. About 73% of the total number of migrant workers are believed to be Indonesians.

However, more Indonesians are looking at Hong Kong and Taiwan for employment as maids, given the higher wages and mandatory day-off policies in the two destinations.

Malaysia has also started receiving more domestic workers in the past few years from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Nevertheless, Malaysia was slapped again this month (October) with another ban, this time from Cambodia. The country barred its citizens from entering Malaysia as foreign workers after news reports highlighted the beatings and sexual assaults of Cambodian maids.

According to Cambodia's Community Legal Education Center, which works with abused domestic workers, there were three reports of killings of maids, while another two were raped, kept in isolation and their passports withheld.

The Malaysian police force has denied that there were serious cases of abuse among Cambodian maids in Malaysia, and says that there were only two deaths reported since 2004.

A manager of a domestic helper agency, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the ban will affect the supply of maids into the country as more households seek domestic helpers, especially in the cities. “The ban is too harsh, as it comes without warning and this will disrupt our businesses as well. We hope that it is only temporary,” he says.