MALAYSIA’S reliance on migrant workers from countries like Indonesia has intensified since the introduction of the New Economic Policy in the 1970s.

The foreign labour included women who arrived in Malaysia as domestic workers. This practice continues until today, and domestic workers now also include Thais, Cambodians and Filipinos.

However, through the decades, abuse of domestic migrant workers has become a recurring issue. In 2011, Cambodia banned the sending of its citizens to Malaysia as domestic workers after widespread reports of abuse, like overwork and salary disputes, besides physical and sexual assaults.

A few cases have also made headlines, such as the case of Nirmala Bonat, who was abused after just eight months on the job.

To uphold the rights of domestic workers, there are a few things that need to be taken into account. As this topic involves multiple layers, organisations and nations, a concerted effort is needed to bring improvement.

First, on the Malaysian front, the Employment Act 1955 should be amended to include full protection for domestic workers as they are not protected in terms of maternity protection, rest days, legal working hours and conditions of service.

In 2014 and 2019, Malaysia’s Human Resources Ministry responded to calls for better protection and rights for domestic workers, which led to the proposal of the Employment (Domestic Employee) Regulations 2019.

In light of abuses that occurred in the past, it is only fair that Malaysia first grants them full protection, which is a fundamental right.

Second, stakeholders in labour migration need to recognise that domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse from the very beginning of the process, such as during recruitment in their countries of origin. This needs to be recognised and eradicated from the start.

Human Rights Watch reported that some aspiring female migrant workers faced abuse in Indonesia in the form of forced confinement as labour agents restrict their movement until they have completed their training, which is meant to last two months.

However, reports have surfaced that some have been held for longer periods. While the potential for abuse may start from the beginning of the recruitment process, it is equally important to realise that such activities serve to fulfil a demand from destination countries.

It is thus crucial for actors in destination countries, including government agencies, recruitment agencies and employers, to recognise the role they have to play, and take steps and measures to reduce and eliminate the potential for such abuses.

Third, as the employment of domestic workers and migrant workers as a whole involves many stakeholders, vulnerability to abuse and corruption exists.

But the likelihood of this occurring can be managed with the dissemination of information to stakeholders, including employers.

It is important that in addition to improving and refining the process of labour migration and employment, steps are also taken to ensure that laws, regulations and guidelines are disseminated among stakeholders in forms which they can understand.

Specifically, it is important not only for agents and recruiters, but equally so for potential workers to understand their rights and obligations.

This will not only protect the vulnerable domestic migrant workers, but to a certain extent, it also protects employers themselves as they are made aware of the potential abuse that domestic workers have gone through and can report it.

Additionally, it will ensure that the recruitment process remains free from exploitation. The effort to protect domestic workers is significant. Small steps matter and concerted efforts need to be taken.

The responsibility to uphold the fundamental rights of an individual falls on everyone, and this should be realised by stakeholders in the process, by governments, employers, recruitment agencies, and civil society.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 25 January 2021.

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