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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Malaysians angry at maid abuse
By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia sometimes seems a country where the middle classes have forgotten how to cope without a maid.

My neighbour never lifts a finger to carry anything, however small. Her maid is in the car park most mornings, washing her employers' two vehicles.

Nirmala Bonat
Nirmala Bonat said the abuse began when she broke a mug
Being a maid is not easy, but if she saw Thursday's papers, she would be grateful that her lot is at least better than that of Nirmala Bonat's.

The 19-year-old Indonesian's face, back and breasts adorned the front pages. The skin over most of her body was knotted with scars, welts and burns, the alleged product of five months of abuse by her employer.

Nirmala Bonat said her ordeal started when she broke a mug while doing the washing up. Her boss, the 35-year-old wife of a company director, started beating her with clothes hangers and burning her.

"She then threw boiling water on me. One day she got upset while I was ironing. She said the clothes had not been properly ironed and slapped me," Nirmala Bonat said. "She took the iron out of my hand and pressed it against my breasts."

It's the single worst case we have seen in years of one of our nationals being abused
Supeno Sahid, Indonesian Embassy

Nirmala Bonat claims her employer shut the doors and windows to stop her screams being heard. Her abuse went unnoticed until a security guard spotted cuts and bruises on her face and called the police.

The maid's boss is now in custody but Nirmala Bonat still has to work up the courage to face her family back in Kupang, Nusa Tenggara East in Indonesia.

"When I go back, what am I going to tell my parents when they see all the scars?" she asked.

"This is inhuman," said Supeno Sahid of the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

"It's the single worst case we have seen in years of one of our nationals being abused."

Economic drive

Cases of maid abuse are common in South East Asia, though rarely on this scale.

I don't have a room. I sleep on the living room floor by the window
Yani, maid in Singapore
Tens of thousands of young, poorly-educated women from Indonesia and the Philippines work as maids in richer countries like Malaysia and Singapore, where they often have no friends or relations to support them.

While the wages they send home are often crucial to their families, some of these women can also become too afraid of losing their jobs to complain about bad employers.

In Singapore, an official at the Indonesian embassy, Chalief Akbar, said almost a hundred Indonesian maids had died falling from tall buildings in the island republic in the previous three years.

Some of those cases were of maids slipping when they hung out washing, but others are thought to have been suicide, perhaps in response to abuse.

"We receive around 10, up to 20, Indonesian workers who fled and then seek the protection of the Indonesian Embassy every day," Mr Akbar said.

He was in no doubt about what they were escaping.

"Mistreatment, like the employer doesn't give them enough food or they want to have a regular day off once a month, but the employer doesn't allow them to have a single day off," he said.

Seventeen-year-old Yani had been with her Singaporean employers for just three months when she sought refuge at her embassy.

"If I do something a little bit wrong then they'll beat me," she said.

Asked about her accommodation, and what her room was like, she replied: "I don't have a room. I sleep on the living room floor by the window."

She received no pay for her three months with her employer. She should have got $150 a month, but the employment agency that placed her kept the money because she failed to stay with the family for a minimum of eight months.

At first glance, there does not seem much comfort to be taken from Nirmala Bonat's five month ordeal.

But perhaps there is.

The outpouring of disgust among Malaysians has been amazing.

"I could barely look at the pictures," said M Kayveas, a politician in the prime minister's department.

"It almost brought me to tears. It's outrageous. We need to look again at laws protecting foreign workers," he said.

Websites and bulletin boards have been full of the story, with mainstream newspaper The Star attracting more than 900 messages.

Almost all are vehement in their condemnation of what happened. Many express a sense of shame, and a fair number draw comparisons with the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The strength of response may be due in part to the shocking images. But Malaysia also seems to be changing, if slowly.

Since Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office last October there has been a subtle but tangible shift of mood - one where people feel more able to speak out and demand better.

Maid abuse case shocks Malaysia
20 May 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia acts over maid abuse
11 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Clock ticking for Malaysia's immigrants
20 Jun 02  |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia's labour dilemma
04 Apr 02  |  Asia-Pacific

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