Sending women abroad to work as cheap labor in more affluent societies has become a major bone of contention between Southeast Asian countries in recent years. While legal, the practice often ranks not that far above human trafficking.
In territories like Hong Kong, domestic helpers have legal rights, which they exercise, along with minimum wages and days off. Other countries are far less generous and gain an unfair economic advantage by deploying cheap foreign labor, normally to take care of menial work for atrocious pay.
Singapore and Malaysia have dubious track records, and mistreated maids have become a source of friction with regional neighbors, in particular Indonesia, the Philippines and more recently Cambodia.
Now the plight of one Indonesian woman — charged with stabbing her Malaysian employer 42 times – is ensuring relations with Jakarta remain uneasy and is looming as an election issue in Indonesia. The national poll is due next July.
Wilfrida Soik is on trial in the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan for the murder of her 60-year-old employer, Yeap Seok Pen, a Chinese Malaysian woman with Parkinson’s disease.
But the circumstantial and mitigating evidence surrounding her case has captured the attention of Indonesians with calls for clemency from politicians. In Malaysia’s High Court, Judge Ahmad Zaidi Ibrahim has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Wilfrida before the case continues.
Her chief backers include Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto of the Gerakan Indonesia Raya party, who has taken up her case after hearing Wilfrida was unwittingly trafficked into servitude as a teenager by unscrupulous middlemen who lied about her age.
A campaign to save Wilfrida has been established through change.org and a petition launched, attracting 13,000 signatures to date, amid reports she was abused and as one media report said “underfed and overworked.” She faces the death penalty if convicted.
However, if the defense can prove she was 17-years-old and underaged when procured to Malaysia from eastern Indonesia then charges that she was trafficked should also stand.
“Wilfrida’s case will be a jurisprudence to 174 other Indonesian workers waiting for death penalties in Malaysia and also the 3,000 Indonesians in prison,” Rieke Diah Pitaloka, of Indonesia’s House of Representatives Commission on Labor and Welfare, told local media, while calling on the government to adopt a more serious approach toward protecting foreign workers.
Perhaps just as important are the striking similarities Wilfrida’s case has highlighted between human trafficking and the often sordid business of sending impoverished women to work abroad with little or no legal protection from abusive employers looking for a modern-day slave. Malaysian and Singaporean authorities should take note when next reviewing the rights and working conditions of foreign maids.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.