Malaysian households employed nearly 320,000 foreign maids—mostly from Indonesia, but also from Philippines, Cambodia and Sri Lanka—as of 2009. Malaysia, which has some of Southeast Asia's highest living standards, has been a magnet for women in Southeast Asia who seek work as maids. Labor activists say that while some 200,000 women work in Malaysia legally, many more have been smuggled into the country.

Many Malaysians rely on foreign maids. In Malaysia, there are few childcare centres and elderly relatives are often cared for in the home. Even humble middle class families can afford have Indonesian maids and nannies. Popular conversation topics among middle class Malaysians are the good points and bad points about their maids.

In 2010, some 230,000 Indonesian women worked as maids in Malaysia. The starting salary for a live-in Indonesian maid is typically around 550 ringgit ($155) a month in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. It is not unusual for domestic staff in Malaysia to be paid less than $100 a month. Irene Fernandez from migrant workers' group Tenaganita, told AFP, "It is time for the minimum wage. Malaysians can no longer believe that they can continue to hire a worker in a very cheap and exploitative situation, that perception must disappear," she said. "If they want to hire domestic workers, they must be prepared to pay decent wages and ensure their rights are protected."

Labour rights groups say that maids suffer from a lack of legal protection, low wages and abuse. "Indonesian domestic workers are treated like second-class humans," Human Rights Watch said in a report in 2004. The report calls for laws to be brought in to ensure that maids are allowed holidays, guaranteed pay, that violent and abusive employers are punished, and that employment agencies are properly regulated. On why there would be no moves to implement such laws, Malaysia’s home affairs minister Azmi Khalid said that less than 1 percent of maids suffered abuse. "Maids are very personal and they are part of the family. The normal law is enough if there is a report of abuse," he told Reuters news agency. [Source: BBC, July 24, 2004]

In 2009, Malaysia agreed to give Indonesian maids one day off a week and allow them to hold on to their passports — which had been routinely confiscated by employers intent on preventing "runaways". But talks have stumbled over Indonesia's request for a minimum wage of 800 ringgit (260 dollars). By comparison, domestic workers in Hong Kong receive at least 460 dollars a month.

In June 2009, Indonesia said it would stop sending its nationals to Malaysia at least until a mid-July meeting in Kuala Lumpur to discuss a new migrant worker agreement. The ban came after a widely-publicized case of maid abuse in which a 43-year-old Malaysian woman was charged with causing grievous bodily to her Indonesian maid. The maid was allegedly beaten repeatedly with a cane and scalded with boiling water.

Foreign Maid Shortage in Malaysia

In January 2011, Beh Lih Yi of AFP wrote: “Tens of thousands of Malaysian households have been thrown into domestic chaos as a shortage of maids hits a country with a long-standing addiction to cheap foreign labour. Maids from Indonesia, who toil for as little as 400 ringgit (130 dollars) a month, have no laws governing their working conditions and a spate of shocking abuse cases prompted Jakarta to declare a ban on new arrivals in June 2009. In an attempt to stem the mistreatment of domestic workers who have been raped, scalded with boiling water and branded with hot irons, the two governments opened negotiations for a formal labour agreement. [Source: Beh Lih Yi, AFP, January 24, 2011]

However, the talks have stumbled over Indonesia's demand for a minimum wage, prolonging the ban and causing serious inconvenience for families left without a helper — some 35,000 households according to an industry figure. "I am struggling without a maid," said Maz, a mother of three who is considering quitting her job as a purchasing officer to take care of the household and her children aged between one and five.

Since becoming a working mum, Maz has had two Indonesian maids who stayed with the family until their two-year contracts ended, but when the last departed in September 2010 there was no one to replace her. "I have to send my kids to nursery and babysitters now. All the household chores also fall on me after my work, I'm losing quality time to be with the kids so that is why I'm thinking of quitting my job," she said. "I've tried to get a weekend maid to come in just to do the chores, but even that is very difficult now due to this maid shortage."

The Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies says the number of foreign maids in Malaysia has dropped from about 300,000 before the ban to 170,000 at present. It says the shortage has seen a drastic decline from the 3,500 maids who arrived monthly in 2009 to 1,000 currently, leaving 35,000 families on waiting lists. Agencies have attempted to source new maids from Cambodia and the Philippines, but there are not enough to meet demand. The government has rejected a request to lower the minimum age requirement for domestic workers from Cambodia from 21 to 18 years, to allow in more women from the impoverished country, who are typically paid 600 ringgit a month.

"We have tried to source from other countries but there is no supply at all," the association's vice-president Foo Yong Hooi told AFP, adding it was the worst shortage seen in his 10 years in the industry. "It will affect the productivity of our country because career women will need to take leave to attend to their children and the worst scenario is that those who are desperate will resort to hiring illegal maids," he warned. Labour rights groups said however that Malaysia only has itself to blame because the lack of legal protection, low wages and the continuing abuse cases have led foreign maids to shun the country. "It is very clear that the shortage is caused by the way that we are treating our domestic workers. We put them in a condition of slavery," said Irene Fernandez from migrant workers' group Tenaganita.

Cost Structure for Hiring Indonesian Maids in Malaysia

In February 2013, Charles Fernandez wrote in the Free Malaysia Times, “Papa (Malaysian Agencies of Foreign Maid Agencies), Mama (The Malaysian Maid Employers Association) and Pikap (The Malaysia National Association of Employment Agencies) are all at loggerheads with each other on the cost structure and no matter how they look at it, the new agency fee of RM8,500 for an Indonesian maid is ridiculously high. Recently Papa announced the new rate of RM6,700 for an Indonesian maid but this did not include the additional RM1,800 as loan to the domestic worker for her share of foreign placement fee in Indonesia. [Source: Charles Fernandez, Free Malaysia Times, February 13, 2013]

This riled Pikap which then held a press conference to denounce the cost rate suggested by Papa, with Mama describing the figure as both unreasonable and burdensome for employers. The new rate is 90 percent higher than the rate proposed earlier through a signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Malaysian and Indonesian governments in May last year. Pikap suggested a bigger cost structure but fell short of announcing its proposal with its president Raja Zulkepley Dahalan saying that it was too early to reveal it to the press but contended that its proposal was with the government and would wait for the outcome.

The current agency fees are a steep increase from the RM4,511 agreed between both the countries with the maids still having to pay RM1,800 and the remaining RM2,711 to be borne by the employer. Although this price may sound reasonable, maids were not willing to come to Malaysia to work for such a small salary and also at the same time, employers are not willing to pay such high salaries with the current agency fees at an all-time high.

So here we have three agencies voicing their own suggestions and proposals on the cost structure, some say to satisfy their own ends without considering the financial constraints it may cause to prospective employers to hire the Indonesian maids, unless of course they can afford them. Others believe that the agencies, both in Malaysia and Indonesia are deliberately creating an artificial shortage of Indonesia maids to provide them an excuse to increase the fees. Pikap felt the the cost structure proposed by Papa without the inclusion of the loan is not workable and took them to task for deciding on behalf of other maid agencies when the government has yet to decide on the ceiling rate. The amount that employers had to pay as announced by Papa is RM6,700, which is more than the RM2,711 without taking into account the RM1,800 the maids have to pay proposed under the bilateral agreements.

Pikap also questioned why Papa is the only setup that had a say in the maid recruitment process between both the countries and asked the government that other agencies also be given a chance as well in determining the cost structure and allow the free market to determine the price based on peak and nonpeak periods.

Malaysians Bridle at Day off for Indonesian Maids

In June 2009, Reuters reported: “Proposals to give the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian maids working in Malaysia a compulsory day off a week have drawn ire from both employers and business groups who believe households will break down. While Filipino maids are generally given a day off each week, the 370,000 Indonesian maids who work in Malaysia are generally not given time off. [Source: Reuters, June 18, 2009]

The government had proposed the day off after a series of high profile cases involving mistreatment of Indonesian maids by employers, most recently a case in which a maid was assaulted with hot water, a hammer and scissors. Indonesia is considering a moratorium on sending workers to Malaysia following the cases of violence, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said on Friday.

An SMS poll for Malaysia's Star newspaper published on Friday showed that 76 percent of 585 respondents believed that giving maids the day off was a bad idea. "I feel that by giving a weekly day off to the maid will expose them to unwanted activities such as dating boyfriends and bringing guys back when the bosses are at work," Noora Mat Rifin wrote in a letter to the Star on Friday. "They might neglect the children and other responsibilities because they will have too many friends and too many phonecalls. This will result in more stress to the bosses when more conflicts are created."

Malaysia’s Plan to Train Local Maids Fails

In July 2009, it was announced that a Malaysian scheme to train local people as maids to reduce dependence on foreign workers had failed due to poor pay. AFP reported: “The government last year launched a course to create “home managers” who were told they could earn up to 2,000 ringgit ($305) a month—four times what Malaysians commonly pay domestic helpers from Indonesia. But training organization Institut Karisma told the New Straits Times newspaper that the graduates of six courses carried out so far had refused the low wages on offer. [Source: Agence France-Presse, July 1, 2009]

“I have received several requests for home managers but these employers are only willing to pay 400 ringgit a month,” the institute’s manager Shah Amirudin Idris told the newspaper. “Although home managers are a level higher, it is unfortunate that they likened the job to that of domestic helpers. It is a noble job.” Deputy Human Resources Minister Maznah Mazlan told parliament on Monday that wages and conditions would have to be boosted to woo local women to work as maids.

State media reported the minister as saying that a survey found that only 6.7 percent of Malaysians were willing to pay more than 700 ringgit per month for a maid.

Abuse of Foreign Maids in Malaysia

There have been many reports of abuse of foreign maids in Malaysia. In August 2007, Associated Press reported: “The police questioned a couple after their 24-year-old Indonesian maid was found dead in their house in Kuala Lumpur. The police said the maid, who had been working at the household for four months, had bruises “all over her body.” On Monday, another Indonesian maid climbed out the window of a 17th-floor apartment to escape her employer, who, she claimed, beat her. In June, another Indonesian maid escaped from her employer’s 15th-floor apartment with a rope made of towels, sheets and clothes. That widely publicized escape focused public attention on abuse faced by many Indonesian maids in Malaysian homes. Some 300,000 Indonesian maids work in the country. [Source: Associated Press, August 17, 2007]

Associated Press reported: “Ties between Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have been occasionally strained over incidents in which Indonesian maids working in Malaysia were assaulted or complained of other mistreatment. In one of the worst cases of abuse, 40-year-old Muntik Bani died in October 2009 after police found her beaten, starved and locked in a bathroom following a tip-off by a visitor to her employer's home. [Source: Associated Press, July 20 2010]

In 2009, the Malaysian government said an average of 50 maid abuse cases were reported annually out of the 300,000 Indonesian maids working in Malaysia. Indonesian diplomats say at least 1,500 maids seek help at their offices across Malaysia each year. Most complain of unpaid wages, but some also claim they were physically abused. A total of 18,716 domestic workers ran away from their employers' homes in 2010, the Dewan Rakyat was told yesterday. Deputy Human Resources Minister Datuk Maznah Mazlan said from the total, 17,205 were domestic workers from Indonesia. "As of last year, 247,069 foreign housemaids were employed in Malaysia, with 76.7 percent from Indonesia," she said in reply to Lim Lip Eng (DAP-Segambut). [Source: New Straits Times, June 22, 2011]

Malaysia has no laws governing the working conditions for domestic workers but has promised to draft legislation to protect them from sexual harassment, non-payment of wages, and poor conditions. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has pledged that tough action would be taken against anyone abusing Indonesian maids, urging employers to take greater interest in their welfare. "We have to take stern action under the law against those who abuse maids," Najib told reporters. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 28, 2009]

In 2004, the BBC reported: “Thousands of foreign domestic workers in Malaysia are suffering sexual abuse and other forms of physical abuse, an international human rights group says. Human Rights Watch says many of the maids, mostly from neighbouring Indonesia, work 18-hour days, seven days a week, and are often denied pay. In a report for the US-based group, researcher Nisha Varia says about 18,000 Indonesian maids fled their Malaysian employers last year. Complaints included not being allowed to sleep for more than five hours a night and not being allowed to leave their employers' home or contact their families.

Malaysian Woman Jailed for Abusing Indonesia Maid

One case in 2004 that drew a lot of media attention involved an Indonesian maid that was badly beaten by the women who employed her. The maid arrived at the hospital three months after her employment began, suffering from malnutrition, with scalding all over back and stomach and swelling on both legs. The maid, 19-year-old Nimala Bonat, was burned with an electric iron, beat in the head with kitchen utensils and scalded with boiling water by her employer, a 36-year-old housewife and former flight attendant named Yim Pek ha. Yim was arrested on four counts of causing grievous harm. Her husband filed a police report, claiming that Nirmala stole items from their house and inflicted the wounds on herself. Needless to say, Indonesians were quite upset about the incident. Protest were held outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta.

In November 2008, a Malaysian court sentenced Yim to 18 years in prison. Julia Zappei of Associated Press wrote: Sessions Court Judge Akhtar Tahir found Yim Pek Ha guilty of using dangerous weapons to inflict injury on Nirmala Bonat at her Kuala Lumpur condominium on three separate occasions in early 2004. Akhtar ordered Yim to start serving the sentence immediately. Bonat said she was beaten and burned for mistakes she made during her five months in Yim's home. She said that on one occasion her employer took a hot iron and pressed it against her breasts after complaining that clothes had not been properly ironed. The case sparked national outrage after Malaysian newspapers published photographs in 2004 of a then 19-year-old Bonat showing burns and bruises over much of her body. [Source: Julia Zappei, Associated Press, November 27 2008]

Akhtar rejected claims by defense lawyers that the injuries were self-inflicted and said he wanted to impose a "deterrent sentence" to show that "sadistic behavior ... cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Yim, 40, was charged on three counts of causing injury to Bonat. She had faced prison sentences of up to 20 years on each count. Yim sobbed uncontrollably and hugged her family after the judge read his verdict. Yim's lawyer, Jagjit Singh, said they would appeal the verdict. He called the sentence "excessive" because there was "no loss of life, no disfigurement, no scars" in the case. Bonat did not attend the hearing because she had returned to her hometown in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province.

Confinement, Sale and Rape of Foreign Maids in Malaysia

In December 2012, Malaysian authorities freed 105 mostly Indonesian maids who were forced to work without pay by day and held against their will at night. AFP reported: “The women were freed in a raid on a building near the capital Kuala Lumpur where they had been held by their employment agency, reports in the local media said. The 95 Indonesians, six Filipinas and four Cambodians had entered Malaysia in recent months on social visit passes that do not confer the right to work legally in the country, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, officials were quoted saying. [Source: AFP, December 3, 2012 +++]

“The Star newspaper said the women were locked up in three floors of a building in the state of Selangor. They were sent every morning to houses in the area to work as domestic helpers but were confined at night, it quoted Selangor immigration department director Amran Ahmad as saying. The newspaper said some of the women claimed the agency took their pay as an advance payment equal to seven months' wages for the recruitment services. Their monthly wages were 700 ringgit ($230) it said. Twelve people were arrested over their confinement, it added. +++

“Indonesia announced December 2011 it would lift the ban after the two countries agreed to better protect maids, but new incidents have continued to rankle Jakarta. October, an advertisement in Malaysia that offered Indonesian maids "on sale" went viral online in Indonesia, sparking new outrage. Last month, police said they were investigating a man in northern Malaysia for allegedly raping his 15-year-old Indonesian maid, while in a separate case, three police officers were charged in November with raping a 25-year-old Indonesian woman at a police station.” +++

Murders of Indonesian Maids in Malaysia

In July 2010, Associated Press reported: “A Malaysian court sentenced a man to death for murdering his Indonesian maid in a landmark verdict hailed by Indonesian diplomats as a warning that the abuse of foreign domestic workers must stop. A High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur convicted A. Murugan, a 36-year-old sugar cane juice seller, of Bani's murder, said government prosecutor Mohamad Dusuki Mokhtar. It was the first time a Malaysian has been sentenced to death for the killing of an Indonesian maid, Mohamad Dusuki said. The trial judge ruled that Murugan's denial that he played any part in his maid's death was unconvincing and contradicted other evidence, Mohamad Dusuki said. [Source: Associated Press, July 20 2010]

“Prosecutors did not explain specifically why Murugan might have abused his maid, but he acknowledged in court that he would get angry because she was slow in her work. However, he denied ever beating her. Widyarka Ryananta, an official at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, said his government hopes there will be more such convictions following its disappointment in May 2010 when a Malaysian was acquitted over the 2007 death of her maid, whose body was found at her home.

In June 2011, a Malaysian couple was arrested over the death of their Indonesian maid. Saeed Khan of AFP wrote: “The couple, in their 50s, were detained and are being investigated for the murder of their maid, who police suspect was abused, an official from central Selangor state said. Their maid was pronounced dead upon arrival at a hospital just outside the capital Kuala Sunday, he said. One of the employers brought her to the hospital. "We are waiting for the post-mortem results to determine the cause of death. But she had bruises on her body," the police official said. Local media said the 26-year-old maid had been working with the family since late 2008. [Source: AFP, Saeed Khan, June 7, 2011]

Malaysian Couple Jailed for Starving Maid to Death

In May 2013, a court sentenced a Malaysian couple to 24 years in jail for starving their Cambodian maid to death. Julie Zappei of AFP wrote: “Hardware store owners Soh Chew Tong, 44, and his wife Chin Chui Ling, 42, were found guilty of culpable homicide at a high court in the northern state of Penang, said prosecutor Tan Guat Cheng. The prison term will run from the day of their arrest in April 2012, shortly after their maid Mey Sichan was found dead by paramedics. She weighed just 26 kilograms (57 pounds) and had bruises on her body. Police said she died from acute gastritis and ulcers likely caused by lack of food over a long period. The 23-year-old had been working for the family for eight months. [Source: Julia Zappei. AFP, May 17, 2013]

High court judge Zamani Rahim was quoted by local media as saying the case had damaged Malaysia's image, scaring away other domestic workers. The evidence showed the maid was denied food over a long period, he said. "In totality, the deceased did not receive enough food and had sustained injuries that were inflicted over time," Zamani said. The couple initially were charged with murder, which carries the death penalty in Malaysia. But the charge was reduced to culpable homicide punishable by a maximum 30 years in jail, Tan said.

"It should be a lesson for all other employers. One of the violations that are increasing is deprivation of food... as a form of punishment. This is worrying," said Glorene Das, an official with migrant labour rights organisation Tenaganita. In response to a series of abuse cases, Cambodia stopped sending its citizens as domestic workers to Malaysia in late 2011, while Indonesia for years suspended sending maids.

Tan, the prosecutor in the case of the Cambodian maid, told AFP she was not confined to her employers' home. There was no explanation in court as to why she did not leave to buy food or seek help.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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