When the tightly folded piece of paper landed on the pavement, Siti didn't expect it to contain a wretched plea for help. "I was walking to the bus stop this morning when I heard someone calling out 'psst, psst,'" the Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia recounted in a Facebook posting to a friend. She said she looked around and then up to see a woman wave her hand through the bars of a window in an apartment. "When she saw that I'd seen her, she flung the paper toward me and quickly moved away. I picked it up and opened it. The note read: 'Help call my husband. Tell him to inform the agent my employer has not paid me and will not let me leave.'" Siti called the number and conveyed the message to the trapped woman's husband. He said he did not know how to contact the agent who had recruited his wife for a job in Malaysia.
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Understanding the predicament the couple were in without friends in Malaysia, Siti took the initiative to inform the Indonesian embassy about what had transpired. But she does not know the woman's fate. For years women from around the region have flocked to Malaysia to meet the demand for cheap domestic workers. For many, cleaning homes and performing menial tasks is a route out of poverty. But the perils of such employment are all too common. Most foreign workers in Malaysia are recruited through sponsorship systems, tying their immigration status to their employer. Employers can repatriate them at will and prevent them from changing jobs. This allows for abuse and exploitation
with impunity, say activists. In February, an Indonesian maid died after suspected abuse by her employer. Adelina Jemira Sau
worked for a family in Penang. Her employers are accused of not feeding her and allowing her wounds to go untreated. She was rescued and admitted to hospital on Feb. 10 after a neighbor reported her situation, but she died the following day. Her employers, a 36-year-old woman and her brother, are now under investigation for suspected murder, police told Malaysian state news agency Bernama. In February 2017, another Indonesian maid, Jubaedah, 38, died after allegedly being abused by her employer. In 2015, a couple were sentenced to death by the Court of Appeal for the murder of their Cambodian helper, 24-year-old Mey Sichan. The verdict was later reduced to manslaughter and the couple sentenced to 10 years in prison. Mey had been starved to death. One of the most high-profile cases was that of domestic worker Nirmala Bonat in 2004. During the trial of her employer in 2014, she told of how she had been tortured with a hot iron. In 2015, the Nepali government reported that there were 461 deaths of its citizens working in Malaysia. An International Labour Organization report showed that the Nepali deaths were due to "poor working conditions, high levels of occupational stress and lack of adequate medical care." The 2017 U.S. Department of State Trafficking In Persons Report warned that "migrant workers on palm oil and agricultural plantations, at construction sites, in the electronics industry and in homes as domestic workers are subjected to practices that can indicate forced labor, such as passport retention … and contract violations, restricted movement, wage fraud and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents and employers." Such cases highlight the lack of protection for migrant workers in Malaysia. Glorene Das, director of Tenaganita
, a human rights organisation in Kuala Lumpur that helps migrant workers, says cases of abuse in Malaysia are not isolated. Her organisation recorded 120 cases of abuse and exploitation between June and December 2017. "The extent of the abuse is shocking. The acceptance of the abuse is shocking along with the fact that the authorities almost always turn a blind eye to the issue after [a case is no longer in the news]," Das said. Tenaganita has raised concerns about the treatment of domestic workers in Malaysia over the last two decades, but there has been little government effort to increase protection. The refusal to acknowledge them as workers bars them from the most fundamental protection accorded to other workers in the country, said Das. It is well known that governments are complicit in labor abuses and human trafficking. Ministers pay little attention to the problem. Policemen, immigration officials and others cooperate with brokers and employers to create an environment for abuse. In 2016, Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed acknowledged that Malaysian employers do not treat them foreign workers well. "Employers don't want to be held accountable for the welfare of these foreign workers." The government says almost 1.8 million registered foreign workers were in the country as of June 2017. It is estimated that more than double that number are working without documents. Adelina's misery and death last month show that little has changed. Siti's experience, however, gives hope. It shows how domestic workers have formed a loose support network through mobile apps and social media to share and look out for each other far from home when governments fail them.