|Dozens of maids have sought shelter at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur|
Malaysia, one of the richer Southeast Asian nations, hosts about two million migrant workers from around Asia – more than 300,000 of whom come to work as domestic helpers or maids.
Some 90 per cent of Malaysia's maids come from neighbouring Indonesia; almost all from a background steeped in poverty and hardship.
|Many runaway maids describe their ordeal as|
torture [Migrant CARE Malaysia]
They leave home with the hope that an overseas job will help ease the financial burden they and their families face.
But a series of recent cases has highlighted the risks Indonesian maids face in coming to work in Malaysia.
Most of the complaints are about unpaid wages, but others have reported incidents of beatings at the hands of their employers, torture and sexual assault.
In mid-August, the bruised body of one maid, a 24-year-old name Kunarsih, was found at her employer's home in Kuala Lumpur.
Police have questioned the couple but no charges have been filed and the case remains unresolved.
Earlier in the same month, Parsiti, another maid from Indonesia, was rescued from the ledge of a Kuala Lumpur apartment block after she climbed down from a 22nd-floor apartment to escape abuse.
In a similar case in June, fire fighters rescued 33-year-old Ceriyati Dapin from a 12th-storey ledge.
She had climbed down three levels using a makeshift rope made from towels, sheets and clothes – driven to desperate measures, she said, by an abusive employer.
The growing incidence of such cases have drawn calls for action from labour rights groups and raised tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, officials at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur said they were seeing complaints from more than 1,000 maids a year, but despite this the Malaysian government was failing to act against errant employers.
Treated 'like animals'
"The most common grouse of runaway maids are unpaid wages, physical abuse and torture," says Tatang Razak, the Indonesian consul in Kuala Lumpur.
|Tatang says Malaysia is dragging its feet|
in investigating alleged abuses
"They are treated inhumanely, some even like animals."
Earlier this year the embassy, faced with a growing number of runaway maids, converted a portion of its premises into a special shelter.
The dormitory-style building currently houses at least 80 maids, who are given food and other necessities as well as simple bunk-bed accommodation.
At the time of Al Jazeera's visit, several of the maids in the shelter were caring for babies, while another one was due to deliver soon – embassy officials said they were victims of alleged rape.
Since it opened hundreds of maids have passed through the shelter, repatriated after protracted negotiations over wage disputes were resolved by the embassy.
About the same time as the shelter was opened, the embassy also formed a special unit aimed at stepping up protection for all Indonesian nationals working in Malaysia.
Tatang, the consul who chairs the unit, said despite numerous police reports lodged by the embassy no employer has ever been punished.
"It's unfair to the women because they came here to work but are now forced to spend time waiting for some kind of justice… and all the while the employers are walking about freely or out on bail," he said.
Malaysian government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment or interview from Al Jazeera.
Tatang said anti-Malaysia sentiments were running high in Jakarta following the recent reports of abused maids.
Reports of abuses have sparked a
series of protests in Indonesia [EPA]
The Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, for example, has seen several recent protests demanding action against abusive Malaysian employers.
"The Malaysian government is not being transparent. It is not prompt with investigations and prosecutions. That is why people in Indonesia are very angry," Tatang said.
Since the late 1990s, Malaysia and Indonesia have signed several agreements to protect the rights of domestic workers, each time with revisions aimed at improving the working conditions of the maids.
Alex Ong, of Migrant CARE Malaysia, the local chapter of a regional migrant workers group, said Indonesian maids always landed a raw deal.
He said the abuse of maids begins at the village level, where a well-established network of agents controlled by well-connected maid agencies in Malaysia recruit young women desperate to escape extreme poverty.
"The women already owe money to the recruitment agency, sometimes as much as RM3,500 ($1,000), before she even left her village," he told Al Jazeera.
Once in Malaysia, the maid has to open a bank account and surrender both her passport and ATM card to her employer, a common practice to ensure she does not run away, said Ong.
"They are hired for less than RM400 ($116) a month but many don’t get paid at all, and suffer serious abuses," he said.
The maids here have no access to healthcare, they suffer sexual and physical violence, and are made to work 12-14 hours daily
In 2006, Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that maids should be paid directly by their employer, receive some - albeit small - compensation for personal injury and be given time off in lieu of overtime.