By Marc Lourdes
KUALA LUMPUR: Their jobs are supposed to include sweeping floors and cooking -- not waiting tables at restaurants, cutting hair at salons or harvesting produce at vegetable patches.
Yet, that's exactly what many maids are made to do.
Many employers hire foreign women as domestic maids, but make them work in places of business.
Maids, unaware of their rights or sometimes just afraid to stand up for themselves, comply and become a source of cheap, uncomplaining labour.
"Some employers engage women as domestic helpers but instead make them work in restaurants, hair salons, pasar malam stalls or vegetable and fruit farms.
"Sometimes, even domestic servants who work in homes are made to do dangerous work like fixing roofs or inappropriate jobs like bathing the family dog when it is against their religion to do so," said Malaysian Trade Unions Congress vice-president A. Balasubramaniam.
"In Hong Kong, Indonesian maids have their own union to help them out but here, there is no union representation at all because they are not considered as 'employees' per se.
"We submitted an application to the Registrar of Societies and Home Ministry in March last year to allow them to at least form an association.
"The application was rejected in September last year with no reason given."
If maids are allowed to form an association, said Balasubrama- niam, they could at least negotiate better deals from employers, push for more protection from the authorities and lobby that the Employment Act be amended to include them.
Tenaganita programme officer Glorene Dass recalled a case where several women were brought in as domestic servants but forced to work for more than 18 hours a day in a goldsmith factory.
"They were made to live above the factory and the windows of the factory were boarded up with plywood so that nobody from the outside could see what was going on.
"The women even had to dry their laundry indoors and were locked inside when they finished work.
"One of the women tried to kill herself twice just to escape the place," she said.
Dass said there were also cases where the employer "outsourced" maids to other family members.
"For example, the employer would send her to work in his mother's house, and then to his sister's house.
"We have had many documented cases like these."
The women are never paid a single sen extra for the additional work they do.
Dass said agents, when supplying maids, would tell employers that disobedient ones would be given counselling.
"This 'counselling' basically consists of threatening, punishing and abusing the domestic workers into toeing the line," she said.
"They are threatened with the prospect of being sold into prostitution if they repeat their misdeeds.
"They are slapped and beaten in front of other women to make sure the rest will be intimidated," she said.
Maids are stuck in a Catch-22 situation because the moment they go to the authorities, their employers or agents lodge reports against them.
Their work permits are immediately revoked, making them undocumented workers and open to arrest by Immigration officers.
"The Employment Act gives them the right to redress but the Immigration Act takes it away by making them illegals living here," said Dass.