Second-Class Citizens?
Image Credit: Irwin Loy

Second-Class Citizens?


The wound over Lay Limheang’s left ear has healed into a coarse, bulbous lump. But she says it’s the scars you can’t see that trouble her most now.

There have never been many options for women like her in this small village in central Cambodia: make your living in the fields, or head to town and get a job at the factory.

Limheang chose the latter. But she found she could barely make ends meet working for $80 a month, so in 2009, she quit her job and moved to Phnom Penh to train as a live-in housemaid.

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By that September, she was starting a new life in Kuala Lumpur. She had spent months learning how to cook and clean. But within weeks, battered, penniless and holding no passport, she says she was praying for an escape.

Malaysia is facing what’s been described as a crisis over its foreign domestic workers: there just aren’t enough of them. Now, Malaysia has turned to countries like Cambodia to fill in the gap. And with its burgeoning population—disproportionately young, unskilled and underemployed—it seems like a natural fit.

Almost overnight, the number of women leaving Cambodia to work in Malaysia has skyrocketed, but the crucial regulations and oversight meant to keep the women safe haven’t kept pace. At best, the industry’s harshest critics say, foreign maids in Malaysia are treated like second-class citizens and denied minimum labour rights afforded to other workers. At its worst, the job can become a form of modern-day debt bondage.

For Lay Limheang, the problems started within weeks of arriving in Malaysia. The agency that trained her had provided her courses in basic English—she learned the words for different kinds of food and household objects, as well as some simple commands. But the couple she was placed with didn’t speak English.

‘My boss asked me to bring her some vegetables, but I couldn’t understand what they said. They were speaking Chinese,’ she says. ‘So they slapped me.’

She claims the abuse became progressively more frequent—and more violent.

‘I was so scared whenever my boss came home. I just expected that I would be hurt again,’ Limheang says.

She’s far from alone in making such claims. In 2009, Indonesia—the main supplier of Malaysia’s estimated 300,000 foreign domestic workers—imposed a moratorium barring new maids from heading to Malaysia, following a string of high-profile abuse cases. The two sides have yet to reach a new agreement despite continued negotiations on wages, mandatory days off and other benefits. Many of Malaysia’s basic rules under its Employment Act that cover rest days, work hours, termination, holidays and maternity leave explicitly don’t apply to foreign maids, known as ‘domestic servants’ under the law.

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