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Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia: Common
language belies cultural differences

By Dewi Anggraeni, Contributor, Kuala Lumpur (From The Jakarta Post online of February 08, 2006)

There are approximately 220,000 Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysia, the number fluctuating marginally from time to time.
The way Malaysia developed into a user-country for the services of Indonesian domestic helpers, cannot be separated from the social and cultural aspects that bind the two countries together.
By comparison with Hong Kong and Singapore, the standard salary range for domestic helpers from Indonesia in Malaysia is the lowest, yet there has never been any shortage of Indonesian women who want to work in the country.
This may have a lot to do with the fact that these women feel that going to Malaysia is more like extending their comfort zone, rather than moving out of it. And this is where the mismatch begins.
The employers in Malaysia do not necessarily regard the Indonesians as part of their world. Many of these people employ the Indonesian women to work as domestic helpers because they are cheaper and generally more compliant than their Filipino counterparts, who are known to be more confident about their skills, hence more self-assertive.
In the 1960s, Malaysia actively encouraged migrants from Indonesia, including a fair proportion of professional people, such as teachers and doctors, and most of these migrants have to a large extent blended into the Malay community.
The more recent Indonesian migrant workers, however, consist mostly of construction workers and domestic helpers -- legal or otherwise -- and do not blend easily into the local community. This is not necessarily caused by the migrants' reluctance to blend in.
The fact is the men, being in construction work, a type of employment generally shunned by the locals, find themselves in an environment where it is difficult to mingle with the locals, and therefore tend to mix among themselves. They thus become very visible and audible in concentrations and clusters, causing some resentment.
When some of these workers commit crimes, they stand out even more, because in the media reporting, the fact that the perpetrators are Indonesians are usually mentioned, often in the headlines.
The women, meanwhile, are mostly in domestic work, which in Malaysia is generally regarded as of very low status. Thus, the locals are not interested in socializing with them either.
Today's Malaysia and today's Indonesia may well underestimate how much they have grown away from each other, despite the common language and some common cultural base, without which, in fact, they would be as diverse from one another as Malaysia and the Philippines, or as Indonesia and Thailand.
Malay was the language of Indonesia's national independence struggle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the independence activists, aware that they needed a unifying force to rally the country's far-flung peoples, each with their own language, adopted a lingua franca that had long been used throughout the archipelago.
Malay was used at first by traders, then spread from the coasts to further inland. In 1928, the independence activists declared the language to be Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language, for the nation they aspired to found, Indonesia.
Bahasa Indonesia then developed into a language with characteristics different from those of the original Malay, or from those of the current Bahasa Kebangsaan Malaysia, Malaysia's national language, though both derive from the same roots.
There are further differences, such as different systems of government and, not least, the collective temperaments of the populations of the two countries. This may have a great deal to do with the fact that while ethnicity-wise Indonesia is overwhelmingly Malay, the ethnic Malays in Indonesia have been very much tempered with other cultures not present in Malaysia.
Interestingly, the presence of a Malaysian in Indonesia is not noticeable. The cultural diversity resulting from the many different ethnic groups throughout the country, allows people to have markedly different accents and different sets of body language while still speaking Indonesian.
A Malaysian speaking Malay in Jakarta, for instance, may very easily be taken for someone visiting from West Sumatra or the Riau Islands.
By contrast, an Indonesian in any Malaysian city stands out, especially if he or she tries to speak Malay. The accent and the body language of the Indonesian are indicative enough of his or her "Indonesianness", because nowhere in Malaysia is there a region or province to which the Indonesian's accent and body language can, even remotely, be attributed.
Officially known as close neighbors and sometimes "cultural siblings", when contact occurs, however, it is often fraught with tension.
There have been the ongoing mutual-blaming bouts over illegal migrant workers from Indonesia who have been forcefully deported, some having been previously detained and penalized, and the near-skirmishes between the two countries' navies in April 2005 over the sea border, the bone of contention, ostensibly at least, being the Ambalat blocks, an area off the eastern coast of Kalimantan rich in oil and gas.
While the Malay roots are still, and will always be, present in Indonesia, the culture here consists of a lot more than the Malay world.
Its literature has developed independently of its Malay origins. And in content, Indonesian literature, and now its media as well, have very few Malay components and hardly any Malay consciousness to speak of. In everyday life, the word "Malay" generally invokes something from the deep past among Indonesians.
It has been a long time since Indonesian migrants have blended into the Malay community. The recent Indonesian migrant workers are now conspicuous, in a manner far from salubrious, to be resented and despised.
Indonesian maids at risk of abuse in Malaysia
The going rates for Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysia are between MR250 (US$66) and MR450 ($120), with a handful receiving over MR500 ($133). These rates are basically market-driven, based on the perceived levels of the helpers' skills, and the amounts employers are prepared to pay.
Foreign domestic helpers are not covered by the country's employment law, therefore there are no clear descriptions of the maids' jobs and entitlements.
Those who are recruited and placed by responsible and accredited employment agencies have some recourse when they encounter problems with their employers, because most of these responsible agencies offer conciliation counseling.
However, as many domestic helpers are recommended by friends, or friends of friends, and have entered the country using the service of illegal employment agencies, they do not have such recourse. Most likely, they themselves have no legal documents.
There are also those who initially entered the country legally, but after encountering problems with their employers, inadvertently became illegal. They run away from the homes of their employers who hold their documents and report them to the Immigration Department to cancel their work visas.
If they have been placed by responsible employment agencies, they may receive assistance from them, but if they have been placed by irresponsible agencies who only concern themselves with profit and turn them away in times of need, they may be in real trouble.
Unless the helpers are sufficiently aware to seek the help of non-governmental organizations such as the Women's Aid Organization (WAO), they would be regarded as illegal, and, as such, liable to be detained, penalized and eventually deported.
It is not known how many of the domestic helpers from Indonesia are illegally working in Malaysia as these people are not registered with the Indonesian Embassy. Nor are they willing to come forward to speak to strangers.
They are, in reality, the most vulnerable of all foreign domestic helpers as they are effectively in constant fear of being reported and eventually deported. Their existence is confirmed by those who are working legally but are not willing to divulge their illegal friends' whereabouts.
If the employment situation works well for a domestic helper from Indonesia -- and for many indeed, it does -- she will be able to save some money and help out with her family's finances at home.
However, the precariousness of the position of these domestic helpers is amply illustrated by the cases where something has gone wrong. Many of these cases are made public in the media, while many others go unnoticed except for those closely involved.
It is ironic that while the issue of domestic helpers itself took a long time to receive the kind of attention that could spur action from the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, each time a bad case hit the media, it became a source of embarrassment all round.
However, after a week or so, life would then return to normal, and people would begin to bury their heads in the sand again, persuading themselves that the situation was actually not as bad as the media made it out to be.
In the meantime, the temporary shelter in the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur continued to house domestic helpers from Indonesia who had been abused, mentally and physically. And employment agencies continued to place more Indonesian domestic helpers in Malaysian homes.
Malaysian employers of foreign domestic helpers consist of people from the lower to the upper middle classes, as well as the transient expatriates. Of the local employers, there are those from the different ethnic communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian.
Unfortunately for the domestic helpers from Indonesia, while they are employed by people of different socio-cultural backgrounds and social strata with varied attitudes, not many of the employers interviewed, even in informal chats, have a great many good stories to tell about them.
Employment agencies claim that there are many stories involving happy employers and happy domestic helpers. However, it is a pity that these happy stories are overshadowed by the unhappy ones.
To begin with, many of the expatriates who pay better salaries, prefer employing domestic workers from the Philippines, because they speak English, and are generally more appropriately skilled and better presented.
An Indonesian helper who is employed by an expatriate family usually regards herself as lucky and outstanding, because she is, more often than not, better educated than the average Indonesian domestic helper working in Malaysia, and this fact is reflected in the higher salary she receives.
The Women's Aid Organization (WAO) has documented that negative perceptions of foreign workers contribute to the frequency and severity of abuse cases. These women, according to the WAO's findings, are regarded as culturally inferior and wanton women who are quite prepared to seduce local women's husbands.
In a presentation prepared by Ivy N. Josiah and Meera Samanther for "Women at the Intersection of Racism and Other Oppressions: A Human Rights Hearing at the NGO World Conference Against Racism", organized by the Center for Women's Global Leadership in Durban, South Africa, 2001, the conference heard statements like, "... they are not deemed deserving of our respect and consideration. Many Malaysians view foreign domestic workers as having a corrupting influence on Malaysian society. Thus the institutions also reflect this underlying prejudice.
"Racist comments from officers, including `you cannot trust these women. They must have secrets. They are not educated. They have negative influence on our children. They are stupid,' are said with utter conviction."
Some workers claim that they were forced by circumstances to enter illegally, because to be legal, they have to use the services of recruitment agencies that charge them high fees.
However, Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia, Rusdihardjo, is of the opinion that they would do better if they did their sums carefully. He said, "In reality, they'll find that whichever route they take, it will still cost them roughly the same amount. If they use the service of the agencies, they are paying for medical checkups, training, induction courses, document processing and so forth.
"If they come in illegally, they skip all that, and their passports are processed by some syndicate people who can disappear overnight. Most likely they are given recycled passports bearing names and details that do not belong to them.
"Then once here they find that their employers, who obviously know they are illegal, exploit them and do not pay them for months. And when they pay, the salary is much lower. The women are often raped, forced to work as prostitutes and they are powerless to seek help. So what is the advantage of being illegal?"

(These stories are the third in a series focusing on the experiences of Indonesian domestic helpers working in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, and their pre-departure preparations in Indonesia. The author collaborated with the International Labor Organization in writing Dreamseekers; dream and reality of working as domestic helpers overseas, to be jointly released by ILO and Equinox Publishing at the end of March.)


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