Plight of the maid: report lifts lid on global suffering

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The Independent Online

Many domestic servants from developing countries are mistreated and abused by their employers, Human Rights Watch reports, with children often forced into servitude. Cases cited by HRW include two Indonesian children working as maids who were beaten to death and a 13-year-old servant who was repeatedly raped by her Indonesian employer.

Two cases in Asia in recent years have brought the plight of domestic servants into the public consciousness. A Singaporean employer, Ng Hua Chye, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he beat his 19-year-old Indonesian maid, Muawanatul Chasanah, so severely that her stomach ruptured and she died.

In Malaysia there was a public outcry after newspapers carried graphic pictures of 19-year-old Nirmala Bonat. Her employer, Yim Pek Ha, had allegedly poured boiling water on her, beat her and pressed a hot iron on her breasts and back. The case is still in the courts.

But HRW found that, far from being isolated cases, the attacks were typical of the treatment many maids experienced - but many cases never make it to court.

The report details the case of Putri, a 15-year-old maid in Indonesia. When she failed to remove dirt trapped between the bathroom tiles, "her employer poured a cleanser containing hydrochloric acid on her right hand and arm, resulting in discolouration of the skin, burns and permanent scarring," the report says.

Abena R, a 10-year-old from Ghana, told HRW: "My boss yelled at me and beat me with a stick, she broke my hand. She didn't take me to the hospital." The NGO providing shelter to Abena said her hand was paralysed and might never heal.

Dian, a 13-year-old working as a maid in Indonesia, was repeatedly raped by her male employer. "It was 4 am and I was sleeping," she told the investigators. "He came into the room. I was forced to have sex with him. He threatened me. He said he would hit me if I told anyone. He told me that he would throw me out and my mother would get no money. It happened for three years. I was scared, but I wanted to support my mother."

Assoupi H, from Togo, was forced to work as a servant when she was three years old. She said: "[My employer] told my mother she would put me in school, but she gave birth to twins and said I had to help her look after the children until they were old enough for school. I was only three years old, but I carried her babies and held them for her."

For thousands of women from poor countries, leaving to work as servants in a wealthier country is the only way they can support their families. There are approximately 300,000 migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, and 150,000 in Singapore, the vast majority of them women. Often their employers take away their passports to prevent them leaving.

Thousands more work as servants in their own countries. A shockingly high percentage are children. In El Salvador, 20,000 women and girls between the ages of 14 and 19 work as maids, and in Indonesia the International Labour Organisation estimates there are as many as 700,000 domestic servants under the age of 18.

They often work under atrocious conditions. The HRW report found several cases of women being forced to work 17 hours a day and being denied a day off for months on end. Many were never allowed to leave their employer's houses, and some were only allowed only bread to eat.

The report found that in most countries domestic servants were denied the basic legal protection given to other workers and local law did not entitle them to a minimum wage, maximum working hours or days off.

Even in the United States, where they are entitled to a minimum wage, HRW found many migrants who were working as domestic servants were being paid less than half what they were entitled to by law.

Abuse around the world

* The International Labour Organisation estimates more girls under 16 work in domestic service than other child labour.

* Half the estimated 200 million migrants are women. In the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka it is closer to 75 per cent.

* About 300,000 migrant domestic workers are in Malaysia, 150,000 in Singapore and 700,000 child workers are in Indonesia.

* The Sri Lankan embassy in Saudia Arabia receives up to 150 maids a month fleeing domestic abuse.

* In the past six years, at least 147 domestic workers have died in Singapore.

* Malaysian maids frequently work for less than 25 cents an hour