Thu, 27 May 2004

How many more 'Nirmalas'?

Reports on the torture of an Indonesian maid in Kuala Lumpur have shocked both Indonesia and Malaysia, while the message coming from Malaysia through its leaders' remarks regarding swift legal action has been loud and clear.

Malaysia's top-ranking officials have said that such "inhumane" practices are "intolerable" and that the perpetrator could face up to 80 years in jail. The maid's employer, Yim Pek Ha, was immediately arrested even as her husband filed a rebuttal, which said Nirmala inflicted the wounds on herself and that she had stolen up to 10,000 ringgit (US$2,632) from the couple.

Sympathy and anger were expressed in abundance by the Malaysian community in relation to the case, which, the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said, was the worst instance of employee abuse ever seen in the country.

Malaysia's reaction is commendable. It signals to Indonesia, among the main sending countries of Malaysia's migrant workers, that in any event involving such a heinous crime immediate action will be taken to ensure that it does not recur.

We shudder, indeed, at the realization that Nirmala's case may not be the last, in Malaysia or in other countries where our migrant workers struggle far from home to improve their own welfare and that of their families.

Even before the economic crisis, Indonesian men and women had for decades sought to work anywhere possible, given the tough competition in the labor market back home.

But we have also heard similar stories of abuse, rape and even death in mysterious circumstances concerning our workers. And, through the years, we have failed to address even the most fundamental weaknesses in their protection.

This week alone, Siti Aisyah, another Indonesian migrant worker from Saudi Arabia, was last reported still to be in a coma at the police hospital in East Jakarta. Originally from Cianjur, West Java, she had been stabbed in the abdomen after reportedly trying to fend off her employer's attempt to rape her.

Year after year has gone by. A plan exists for better regulation and the better monitoring of both workers and their labor supply agencies. Regional talks have been held, all aimed at assuring the public that the migrant labor market is not merely one of commodities, but of human beings with a basic right to decent work and to protection of their well-being.

Malaysia has, meanwhile, deported thousands of our illegal workers, often to find thousands repeatedly returning, also by illegal means, thanks to the services of corrupt parties in both countries.

Nirmala, who had traveled all the way from East Nusa Tenggara, was among those who entered legally, according to the records, but even she was not immune from "punishment", which allegedly included being beaten and burned with a hot iron on several parts of her body.

The Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is currently accommodating a few hundred of our workers, mostly women, who are undocumented and who, like Nirmala, work as maids. Indonesian envoy Rusdihardjo was quick to add, however, that those cases were few compared to the hundreds of thousands of our workers employed in Malaysia.

But a few hundred workers reporting abuse at the hands of employers is no small number, and one source of hope of progress in this long-standing issue was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia on May 10.

Initially aimed at better labor protection, unfortunately the document focuses more on ensuring the legal entry of workers through stricter terms of recruitment. It appears Malaysia feels that ending the recurring "disease" of illegal workers from Indonesia and other neighboring countries will automatically mean better protection for them.

Nirmala's case, however, proves otherwise. And while, once again, we commend the display of Malaysia's firmness against such suspected perpetrators of barbarous acts, we urge that both governments act more wholeheartedly to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that even those toiling behind closed doors in private premises -- true for the majority of our migrant workers, who are maids -- may be confident that they are not merely thrown to the mercy of strangers in foreign lands.