Kuala Lumpur housewife Yim Pek Ha, 36, was released on Wednesday on RM85,000 ($22,300) bail almost two months to the day after she was charged with assaulting Indonesian maid Nirmala Bonat.

 

Bonat, 19, is being treated in Indonesia for second- and third-degree burns to her chest, back and legs caused when she was allegedly burned with an iron and scalded with boiling water.

 

The case, which has seized public attention in Indonesia, is the latest in a series of horror stories by Indonesian domestics working abroad.

 

In just the past week, newspapers in Jakarta have carried lurid details of the rape and murder of a 41-year-old Indonesian maid in the Malaysian capital, and the deaths of three other young maids who are believed to have accidentally fallen to their deaths from apartment blocks in Hong Kong and Singapore.

 

Pervasive abuses

 

In a report released on Thursday, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that unlike the high-profile Bonat case, there is little justice for women abused by labour recruiters in Indonesia or their employers in Malaysia.

 

There are few takers for low-paid
jobs among affluent Malaysians

The report chronicles the stories of Indonesian women who have been the victims of beatings, rape and robbery both during the recruiting process, while working abroad, and upon their return.

 

"… women migrant domestic workers often suffer severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, psychological and physical abuse, including sexual abuse, and prohibitions on practising their religion," the report says.

 

"Pervasive labour rights abuses in the workplace include extremely long hours of work without overtime pay, no rest days, and incomplete and irregular payment of wages."

 

Both countries need to reform their labour codes in order to protect the rights of Indonesian maids, the 110-page report concludes.

 

Angry reaction

 

Malaysian labour laws provide no protection to foreign domestic workers. Officially there are 240,000 registered domestic workers such as Bonat in Malaysia, 90% of whom are from Indonesia. However, the true figure is likely much higher.

 

"Pervasive labour
rights abuses in the workplace include extremely long hours of work without overtime pay, no rest days, and incomplete and irregular payment of wages"

Human Rights Watch on treatment of foreign domestic workers in Malaysia

Typically the women work upwards of 15 hours each day, seven days a week, for the equivalent of $0.25 per hour. Their salaries are normally held until the end of their two-year contracts, further binding the women to their employers, HRW reports.

 

Malaysian government officials reacted angrily to accusations that foreign workers are inadequately protected. "The issue of not being protected by the law does not exist," Human Resources Minister Fong Chan On said in Kuala Lumpur.

 

"They have a choice to leave the country if they feel they are not protected."

 

There are roughly four million Indonesians working abroad according to government statistics, including 1.2 million in Malaysia, 500,000 in Saudi Arabia and 40,000 in Kuwait.

 

Dangerous places

 

In 2002, 120 Indonesian maids died while working abroad.

While lauded at home as a source of much needed foreign currency, overseas Indonesian workers are poorly served by their government, activists say.

 

Even a domestic's job abroad is
attractive to many Asian women

While Indonesia's domestic labour regulations are extensive, there are no specific laws to protect its overseas workers. They are often exploited by the roughly 500 licensed manpower-supply companies. Female workers can spend months waiting in so-called training centre until their contracts are finalised.

 

"These centres can be very dangerous places for the women because even the labour recruiters that are supposed to be licensed by the government are sometimes trafficking the women into brothels in Malaysia," says Faridah, an outreach worker in Surabaya, East Java, the transit point for the majority of domestic workers bound for Malaysia.

 

"There's a lot of sexual abuse … (and) rape cases at these containment centres. Some of the women have a worse time before they leave than they do when they go abroad." 

 

While calling the memorandum of understanding on labour migration signed in May by Indonesia and Malaysia "an important commitment", HRW notes the bilateral agreement still fails to protect the rights of so-called unskilled workers like domestics.

 

Usurious taxes

 

Their troubles are not over when they return from abroad. The authorities in Jakarta have moved the processing of returning domestics to a hanger on the other side of the city's international airport, and closed it to prying eyes.

 

"They have a choice to leave the country if they feel they are not protected. The issue of not being protected by the law does not exist"

Fong Chan On,
Malaysian Human Resources Minister
 

Inside, the roughly 5000 women returning home each week are subject to usurious taxes and expensive, mandatory medical examinations before being forced to exchange their foreign-currency earnings at rates that are at least 20% below the market rate.

 

Buses organised by the labour recruiters charge the women several times the normal rate for their trip home.

 

"To stop the extortion, workers should receive treatment on a par with other passengers coming through Terminal II, and the government should impose harsh sanctions against civil servants and government workers extorting them," Yunus Yamani, chairman of the Association of Indonesian Labour Export Companies, told the Jakarta Post newspaper recently.

 

On her release from prison, Nirmala Bonat's former employer was greeted by her husband and four children carrying flowers and balloons. Yim faces 67 years in prison if convicted of three assault charges. Under the terms of her release, she cannot employ a maid.