Maid, lackey or serf? What some Malaysians think of their hired help.

There has been a lot of talk here over a proposal to legislate to ensure that maids (usually foreigners) have one day off a week. That’s right. Apparently domestic workers don’t come under normal labour laws because they work in the house. (Ok, as a housewife I don’t get an automatic day off either…)

But my first reaction when I heard this was…wtf? You mean there are people out there who don’t give their maids a day off???

For those of you who don’t know how things work here: almost all urban women work full-time. It is very hard to make ends meet on a one-salary family, even on a fairly modest scale, especially at the beginning of their careers, and yes, that applies even if you have a university degree. The solution used to be that you got the kids’ grandmother to look after your kids. Nowadays though, grandma is probably working too. So you look for a maid. Most full-time domestic help is from overseas, usually Indonesia or the Philippines.

Back in the days when my kids were little in the 70s and early 80s, we had a maid too. She was local and every 3 months she took a week off to go visit her family in another state. And if she wanted to go out at other times, she asked for time off. Usually she went out several times a week, sometimes sleeping over with friends. I never refused unless we had a function to go to and needed a babysitter, which was pretty rare. When the first maid left to get married, we hired her sister. I taught her English and we helped her get a place in a college to do hotel housekeeping and she left. Her younger sister came in her place, and she stayed until she got married. After that, my kids were big enough to pull their weight, and I have not had a maid since. Whenever I am down in western Johor, I drop in to see those 3 sisters…

The government has now dropped the idea of the legislation, saying it is not necessary. Really? Hmm.

Here is one letter to the newspaper (The Star, Monday 22nd June).

It starts like this: ‘I am appalled to read a recent headline in our local press suggesting the need to legislate…’

Good, I thought. Here’s someone as appalled as I am.
And then I read on.

‘…house helpers are employed on a full-time basis for specific purposes…the contract is on a full-time basis for a specific period, and maids have been explained their rights, income and working conditions by their responsible agencies…If they want to be paid less vis a vis weekend off, we can always curtail their present two-year contract to, say, 18 months or so…

The writer even signed the letter with his name. Their maid is apparently expected to work for two years, seven days a week, living in. I wonder if they are allowed out of the house compound?

I thought that was bad enough. And then I heard of a maid (not in Malaysia but a neighbouring country) whose husband died back in her own country. And she was refused leave to go home for the funeral.

After that depressing thought, here’s a photo to calm you down. Sunset outside our chalet on Tioman. Taken while sipping a glass of cab-sav in a chair on the lawn…Enjoy vicariously.


Maid, lackey or serf? What some Malaysians think of their hired help. — 6 Comments

  1. I wish the photo was enough to calm me down. That someone could be genuinely indignant about that really rakes the coals of my class hatred *g*

  2. Hendo, employing a maid is not just a rich person's option here. Middle class families need 2 wages in the family to make ends meet, and there simply are very few day care places that will take children.

    People leave for work at 6 am sometimes and don't return until 6 pm because traffic and public transport is horrendous. Who will look after their children? Some people do opt for a lower standard of living so the wife (and here in Asia it almost always is the wife) can stay home and look after them. But usually, most professional people aren't too happy at being asked to do housework for the best years of their lives… This is definitely not a country where it is easy to re-enter the workforce in your late 30s with no experience, after your children are grown.

    Still, there can be no excuse for expecting someone to work nonstop for two years no matter what anyone's socio-economic class is.

    Housewives have always done it, of course, but then, they do it for their own family, not someone else's – and that makes all the difference.

  3. Doesn't make a difference to me, I think wives definitely need to be given a day off. Husbands have them.

    But then I always hated house work anyway. In England I always had a 'maid' for a few hours every day but certainly not on weekends. I sure would not expect anyone to work 24/7 for 2 years straight. That smacks of slave labour doesn't it.

  4. My Malaysian friends have a maid who works 7 days a week, and not only that, the maid is never allowed out anywhere by herself, and even her handphone is confiscated for the whole time she is in employment. The family live on the 4th floor of a building, so the maid can't even go out for fresh air or pop into a garden. Also the maid is not allowed any money, her salary is paid straight into the bank, so the maid can't even buy a bar of chocolate – not that she is allowed to go out to the shops!

  5. That sounds like a lot like illegal imprisonment, Liz (nice meeting you this morning btw).

    I think one of the things that I find most staggering about all this is the lack of shame. There have been a number of signed letters to the newspapers saying things like "Well, I can't let my maid have a day off because she would run away."

    WHAT???? What kind of place is this? Sometimes I think I don't know this land any more. And where is the outrage? Ok, there has been some, but it has been muted vis a vis what there should be in a civilised land.

    Maids aren't slaves, but a surprising number of people are treating them as if they are, and they are not a bit ashamed of it. They take advantage of the poverty of the women who come here to work, their lack of education, their vulnerability as foreigners cut off from family and friends.

    And where is the law in all this?

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