Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Women feed Malaysian boom

Published: Sep 30, 2007
Tens of thousands of Indonesian women work in Malaysia's booming economy as domestics and prostitutes. Often illegal, they have few rights.


By 1995, Malaysia had become the largest importer of labour in Asia, with a foreign workforce, legal and illegal, estimated to be well over one million men and women. The vast majority were Indonesian, most were unskilled and most were illegal - that is, they had come without proper documentation or overstayed their visas in violation of Malaysia's immigration laws.

The presence of so many immigrants had become a major domestic political issue within Malaysia, a sensitive foreign policy question in Indonesian-Malaysian relations, and a growing human rights concern.

For and against

On the domestic side, the Malaysian government was under pressure from some sectors, notably the Malaysian Agricultural Producers Association and the construction industry as well as from some state governments such as Johor, to bring in more workers.

At the same time there was growing pressure from the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress to stop the flow, on the grounds that migrants were depressing the wage structure and removing incentives to attract Malaysian workers.

The Malaysian Chinese Association and the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) were concerned that the influx of Indonesians could alter the sensitive racial and ethnic balance.

Meanwhile officials of both the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the opposition Islamic Party (Parti Islam or PAS), often saw the Indonesians as a potential boost to the Malay side. Passing out permanent residency cards to illegal Indonesian workers during election campaigns became a particularly notorious practice in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, on the northeastern coast of the island of Borneo.

By the mid-1980s, the Malaysian public, like its counterpart in other labour-receiving countries, was beginning to hold immigrants responsible for a rise in crime, prostitution and other social ills. This made it imperative for national politicians to be seen to be protecting the country's borders by detaining and deporting workers who lacked proper documents.


Migrant workers suffer from a range of abuses. Between 1990 and 1995, some 500 illegal workers are estimated to have drowned in the Straits of Malacca while trying to reach or return from Malaysia. Others suffer from frequent illegal detention, forced labour and torture.

The remainder of this article focusses only on Indonesian women. Poniyah binti Winarto, aged twenty, was a single woman from Central Java. In early 1994, she had come to Malaysia legally through an Indonesian agency. She had paid RM1,000 (AU$550) to get to Penang from Jakarta and, through a Penang-based Malaysian agency called Pelita Baru Sdn Bhd, was placed with a Chinese family in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

For the next ten months, she worked eighteen-hour days without pay, although her salary was supposed to have been RM300 (AU$165) a month. Her employers, Mr and Mrs Liu, kept her passport, and she was not allowed to leave the house. She could have an hour off each day but never had a day off. She was not allowed to send any letters out of the house, and could not contact the agency or members of her family.

Run away

In November 1994, she decided to run away and met an Indian man who promised to help her in exchange for RM300. She took the money from Mrs Liu's purse and gave it to the man, but he just took it and never came back. When Mrs Liu discovered that her money was missing, she accused Poniyah of stealing RM1,000. She began steadily inflating the amount until by the next morning, the amount allegedly stolen was up to RM5,000.

At the same time, her employers took pliers and pinched her midriff and her nipples with the pliers, and began pulling out her hair. They also hit her on the ankles with a ceramic mug. The use of pliers and the systematic depilation continued until February 9, 1995, when with the help of another maid working at the house, she managed to escape and report to the local police station.

The police took down her report, then got her to University Hospital in Kuala Lumpur and called a women's organisation to help her. By that time she was almost bald, and there were scars of the pliers all over her body. Her nipples had been pinched until they bled. Poniyah was able to get her passport back, but no charges were ever brought against the Lius.


Women domestic workers around the world are less protected and may face greater exploitation than any other group of migrants for several reasons. The fact that they live in their employees' homes means that they are separated from other workers and do not have witnesses, or the protection of others, in cases of inhumane working conditions or sexual abuse. The boundary between work and leisure is often blurred, if it exists at all, and many women routinely work fifteen-hour days and longer.

Illegal confinement to the house is facilitated by the practice of employers holding on to the women's passports for safekeeping and occasionally as a check against escape. Many countries require employers to deposit a large security bond against possible illicit activities of the foreign workers, giving the employers the incentive to restrict domestic workers to the house as much as possible. Domestic workers are also often specifically excluded from labour legislation and government policies designed to safeguard workers against abuse.


All of these factors are operative in the case of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia, with the added problems that many of the women are poorly educated with no more than an elementary school education, and many are in Malaysia illegally. Their difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that migrant women tend to be viewed in a negative light by both Indonesian and Malaysian officials, despite the fact that they are major sources of income for both through recruitment fees and the foreign workers levy respectively.

Indonesian officials we spoke with portrayed single women who worked in Malaysia as social misfits who could not get a husband or who had personal problems at home that prompted them to leave. (Male migrants, on the other hand, were seen as adventurous and entrepreneurial). From their statements in the press, many Malaysian officials appear to view maids, particularly Filipinas but other nationalities as well, as potential prostitutes, and round-ups of foreign women are conducted not just in the name of stopping illegal immigration but stopping vice as well.


There is in fact a link between domestic service and prostitution among Indonesian women, but it is not the one Malaysian officials are making. As the demand for maids increases and more and more Indonesian women go to Malaysia, it becomes easier for traffickers in women to make their victims believe the promises of good jobs with nice families at high wages.

Particularly in East Java, where much of the trafficking is focussed, a young woman who is regaled with stories of the good life in Malaysia can often see direct evidence of the wealth to be made from others in her village who have worked as maids. She has no way of distinguishing between the tekong recruiting illegally for maids, and the trafficker seeking women for brothels. Indeed, it may be a Malaysian agent who determines who goes to brothels and who goes into domestic service from among the women he receives from the tekong.


The demand for maids in Malaysia has skyrocketed in recent years, as more and more middle class Malaysian women enter the labour force and need someone to look after their children. The number of Indonesians legally registered as domestic workers rose from 39,112 in 1993 to 57,563 in August 1995, out of 124,400 legal foreign domestic workers in the country. The number of Indonesian domestics was more than double the number of legal Filipina maids, according to official Malaysian statistics.

The demand for Indonesian women was already high by 1992, as evidenced by companies set up exclusively to send or recruit Indonesian domestic workers in both Indonesia and Malaysia. A company in Pekanbaru was sending 500 Indonesians a month to Malaysia, 400 of them women and almost all of those domestic workers.

The overwhelming majority of the women recruited for work as domestics are Javanese, but Sumatrans and Madurese are also well- represented. Recruitment of women in Kalimantan also has been stepped up as the demand for domestic workers has increased in Sabah and Sarawak. Not infrequently, women are recruited, taken illegally to Malaysia, and held by the Malaysian agent who waits for the highest bidder, who might be a sawmill owner, a family needing a domestic worker, or a brothel owner.


Many women are treated well and paid regularly, but the nature of domestic service does render women particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

One of the few organisations in Malaysia that provides assistance to Indonesian workers, the Indonesian Workers Welfare Association or Persatuan Kebajikan Anak Indonesia (PKAI) in Kuala Lumpur, received 212 complaints between February 1994 and September 1995. Of those, 30.6% were registered as 'failure to pay wages', and a third of those were lodged by domestic workers. But 'failure to pay wages' was usually short-hand for a much more complex set of problems as some of the entries in PKAI's log book illustrate.


One case reported in September 1995 involved an Indonesian domestic worker named Eti. At the beginning of August 1994, Eti, aged thirty-two, left her home in Malang, East Java and registered with a recruitment agency, PT Duta Ananda in Jakarta, to work in Sarawak as a maid. Two weeks later, after paying Rp500,000 (AU$250), she was sent by ship to Pontianak in West Kalimantan, together with dozens of other migrants.

After a week in Pontianak, she was taken to Sarawak via the border crossing of Entikong, and put to work as a maid in the home of a Malaysian recruiting agent in Kuching. She was promised a salary of RM230 (AU$130) a month and a two-year contract. But she found herself working from 4.30 am until 9.00 pm without a break, and forbidden to go outside the house. When her employers went out, they locked the doors from the outside. They also placed a lock on the telephone, so Eti could not call anyone for help.

In October 1995, after a year of working under such conditions without receiving any wages at all, Eti finally managed to call the Indonesian consulate in Kuching after her employers went out and forgot to lock the telephone. The consulate managed to get the employers to pay ten months of wages but at 50% of the promised rate. The other two months, they said, were deducted to pay the costs incurred by PT Duta Ananda in bringing Eti to Malaysia.

Many Indonesian agents simply collect women and turn them over to their Malaysian counterparts. The women themselves have no idea who they will be working for, or where in Malaysia they will end up. They place total faith in their recruiter, who is often an acquaintance or friend of the family, to take care of them.


The rise in the Malaysian demand for Indonesian maids has been accompanied by an apparent increase in cases of trafficking of Indonesian girls and women into Malaysia for prostitution - apparent because no statistics are available on such a sensitive issue, and the number of articles appearing in the press of both countries is only a guide. (The rise in the number of Indonesian male migrants may also be a factor in the apparent increase).

The pattern of trafficking is all too familiar. It is virtually identical to that of Burmese women trafficked into Thailand or Nepali women into India. A friend or a relative, acting as an agent or a pimp, approaches a young woman, almost always from East Java, although there has been some trafficking of women from Kalimantan into Sabah.

The agent speaks in glowing terms of the money to be made in Malaysia from working in a hotel or a restaurant. The young woman, usually aware of other women in her village who have returned from Malaysia with consumer goods, agrees to go. The usual route is bus to Surabaya, plane or boat to Ujung Pandang, Ujung Pandang to Pare-Pare, across to Nunukan in East Kalimantan, and then into Tawau, Sabah. There the women end up locked in one of the seedy-looking brothels near the bus terminal.


In June 1992, nine young women, aged sixteen to twenty-two, were found locked in Hotel Tawau where they had been forced to work as prostitutes. They had been there for two months when two of the women managed to escape and report to the Indonesian consulate. For the two months, they had not been given food if they refused to take clients, and were kept under constant guard.

The nine women had been recruited by an agent based in Tuban, who promised them all good jobs as waitresses. When they had arrived at the Plaza Tawau hotel, they were sold to pimps. A woman named Yayuk, from Probolinggo, East Java, was sold for RM1,500 (AU$825). The women told police that some forty Indonesian women were kept under lock and key at the hotel by eight pimps.

At the same time that the story of the nine women surfaced, police in Tarakan, East Kalimantan, reported foiling four other cases of trafficking. A waiter from the Plaza Tawau hotel was caught in Tarakan trying to smuggle two women from Sidoarjo and Bojonegoro, East Java. Both had been promised work in a resort hotel in Lahad Datu, Sabah. The other women from Kediri and Sidoarjo were rescued from a pimp who was bringing them to a brothel called the Chester Inn in Tawau. Ten cases of trafficking of women into Tawau had been reported in 1991, and the journalist who reported the new cases wrote that the number was rising.

Sidney Jones is regional director of Human Rights Watch for Asia. This article is extracted from a report to the Canberra INFID conference.

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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