Law must step in to stop Asia's maid abuse

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am


An Indian maid knows all too well that a woman's work is never done. Domestic servants are treated like sub-humans, with infinite working hours but finite pay. Just last month, a doctor couple in New Delhi were in the news for mistreating their 13-year-old maid, including not giving her enough to eat. They even went on holiday to Bangkok, leaving her alone and locked in the flat with enough provisions for just a few days.

In another case last month, a maid in New Delhi was found not to have been paid by her employers for four years.

There are an estimated 4.5 million domestic workers in India. Like many who also suffered abuse, these two girls had no legal redress. At present, Indian labour laws apply to workers in factories and offices but not to maids, nannies and cooks in homes.

However, the government is now formulating a new policy which spells out their entitlement to minimum wages, maternity leave, annual leave, compensation for overtime and defined working hours.

The problem is spread across Southeast Asia where, according to the Singapore-based Task Force on Asean Migrant Workers, 900,000 women from Cambodia, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines work as maids in wealthier countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore for disgraceful pay and conditions.

Singapore in particular is notorious for exploiting foreign maids; it was only in March that maids there were finally to be guaranteed one day of rest a week. Indonesia is also calling for a ban on maids cleaning windows in high-rise apartments after eight have fallen to their deaths in Singapore this year.

In Malaysia, Indonesian maids were so badly treated that, in 2009, the Indonesian government banned women from going there, following a series of gruesome cases of abuse. Cambodian women who moved to Malaysia to fill the gap are suffering the same kind of treatment.

The cause of this regional malady is the same as in India. Domestic work is not recognised as work under the law so working conditions, pay and overtime are not fixed or regulated.

Nor is this likely to change soon. It's true that in Hong Kong, maids have made some progress in that they now have rights under the Employment Ordinance, but last June, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia all abstained from voting for a resolution at a meeting of the International Labour Organisation to recognise the rights of domestic workers.

For India's domestic workers, the new policy would be a godsend, even though it will no doubt strike terror in the hearts of employers accustomed to maids catering to their every whim.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India