When it comes to abusive treatment of domestic workers in Malaysia, you would think that you had seen or heard it all. Until you hear the sad, tragic story of Adelina Lisao.

Adelina was a 26-year old Indonesian who hailed from East Nusa Tenggara. She came to Malaysia in search as a domestic worker, hoping to earn sufficient income for her family back home. Just like most of the 250,000 domestic workers registered in the country.

Unfortunately, she was dealt with a fate not uncommon in her field of work: she worked under an abusive employer. The accounts of her living conditions were staggering. They conjure only the most upsetting images in one’s mind.

Adelina in her employer’s house compound. Source: AP Photo/Por Cheng Han

Neighbours first suspected abuse when they often heard loud screaming on an almost daily basis. Even the employer admitted to slapping her, allegedly only “once or twice”. The screaming triggered the neighbours to then call for help from their local Member of Parliament.

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When volunteers first found her in the employer’s home, she had serious bruises and wounds on her hands and legs. According to the employer, Adelina had defecated in the kitchen’s drainage outlet, causing it to clog. Whilst using a chemical to clean the outlet, she had spilt it on her own legs and arms. This caused burn marks.

Somehow, Adelina then was not brought to a hospital to treat these wounds. Instead, the employer explained that she had bought iodine for her, but the healing process was worsened by the worker agitating her wound. It was later learnt that she had pus oozing out from her arms and legs.

Just when you thought it could not get any worse, there were photos that showed Adelina sleeping on a torn mat outside the house. In fact, it was alleged that she has been sleeping outside with a Rottweiler every day for almost two months. This was unimaginable in a supposedly modern, civilized society in the 21st century.

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By the time volunteers rushed her to a hospital, it was already too late. She died a day later of multiple organ failures due to anaemia. Following the accounts of her appalling living conditions, this could hardly be a surprise.

What was also not surprising, is how common these incidents of abuse and torture have become towards domestic workers. Just February last year, a 38-year old Indonesian domestic worker named Jubaedah died last Feburary after her employer allegedly abused her.

In a radio interview with BFM, Tenaganita’s executive director Glorene Das said that in a period of six months from June to December 2017, there were 120 complaints filed with them – 82 of them were women. The top reported violations were no rest day, no contract signed, contract substitution, unlawful deduction, food deprivation and non-renewal of work permit.

A 2017 US Department of State Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report stated that “…domestic workers are subjected to practices that can indicate forced labour, such as passport retention… and contract violations, restricted movement, wage fraud, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents and employers.”

Why does this keep happening?
Penang state police chief Datuk A Thaiveegan said the police were completing the investigation paper on the case. Source: NSTP/Danial Saad

As saddening as Adelina’s story is, this is not the first case domestic worker abuse in the country, nor will it likely be the last. Das says that the main reason for widespread abuse of domestic workers is the lack of legal protection for these workers.

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The current laws in place have been terribly inadequate in both structure and enforcement to protect the human dignity and rights of domestic workers. Even the Employment Act 1995, which supposedly protects domestic workers, defines them as domestic servants.

When these workers are subjected to abuse and torture at work, they try to run away. But when they do escape, they are instead criminalized as undocumented migrants under the Immigration Act. This is especially prevalent since the usual practice is for the employer or agency to hold onto the worker’s passport. This in itself is actually an illegal act. Yet, it remains the norm to do so.

This is not strictly a Malaysian issue. Such incidents have also occurred in Singapore, which also imports a substantial amount of foreign domestic workers. In September last year, a woman was convicted of domestic worker abuse after using an array of household items including a hammer, chopper, bamboo pole and stone pounder to hit her Indonesian worker – causing permanent disfiguration.

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Despite Indonesia’s threat to ban sending domestic workers abroad (which they did but later quickly turned back on it), we continue to see greater violence being committed against domestic workers. And it is unlikely countries like Indonesia and Philippines would stop sending domestic workers to Malaysia and abroad. Remittances by its workers abroad represent 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP.

Will justice be served?

Going back to Adelina’s case, the employer and two others have been detained, surely to be followed by a lengthy and traumatic court and legal processes for the victim’s family. Optimistically, one would hope for justice to be served.

Domestic worker abuse in the past has landed employers in hot water. Perpetrators would usually receive a prison sentence in the range of eight to eighteen years. However, a couple escaped death sentences when the apex Federal Court reversed their murder convictions to culpable homicides. They were sentenced to 10-year prison sentences each. All that after starving their Cambodian domestic worker to death.

How can one not be outraged by all of this? How many more deaths will it take before we finally decide: we want no more of this? And yet, It all feels too familiar; that somehow, this is unlikely to change.


Ryan Chua is the Chief Operating Officer of the ASEAN Economic Forum.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.