15 June 2024

Call me domestic worker – not maid, servant, or helper


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By: Dr. Linda Lumayag

The current campaign to call women (and men, too) as domestic workers: those who provide domestic labour in our homes to make our life better is in tandem with the ILO Convention 189’s call to recognise domestic work as work. Why are migrant domestic workers in Malaysia pushing this agenda?

Since institutionalising the entry of foreign women workers as domestic workers in Malaysia in the early 1980s, the word ‘maid’, ‘servant’, or ‘helper’ has been a popular label to refer to women (and, men) who are placed in individual private households doing menial and dull work that our women have vacated since the shift to productive labour market. The popularity of calling a woman a servant, maid or helper can be traced to the feudal system of relationships based fundamentally on land possession – as an important resource – to establish economic and political power in colonial times. This landlord-tenant/master-slave relationship continues to morph, recreating different types of relationship that amplify power hierarchy.

In class societies like Malaysia, the socialisation process brings you to how people working or providing service within the households are named, labelled and identified to represent different class positions, power, gender and even political affiliation. Our laws, policies and normative practices are in fact reflective of our historical past. Take, for example, the Employment Act 1955, and how occupations and work categories are identified and become normalised in the current work and employment context. One of these is how we name women (and, men) who work in our private homes. Despite the benefits we accrued from employing domestic labour, nowhere this category is recognised legally. What remained, until recently, was the category ‘domestic servant’.

Linking the archaic and colonial practices of slavery with the label of servants for women providing domestic service is a view that must be abhorred. Hence, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) via the Convention 189, declares that, domestic work must be recognised as work. Domestic workers are not slaves, maids, or helpers. They are domestic workers – in form and substance -, with labour rights as well as obligations towards their employers.

It means that Malaysia needs to acknowledge that domestic labour should be visible work, and workers are compensated for the work they do. The basic right to food, rest and to work in a safe environment must take precedence over our own demented, biased and judgemental tendencies.

Domestic work is a category of work, an honourable, decent work, in fact. When we recognise domestic work, we don’t see strangers at home, we don’t see them as servants or maids.They are workers who have basic rights and responsibilities – like you and me. It is not only because the contract states that you provide them food, shelter, accommodation and a rest day. It is impossible, or dancing quite close to it, that a domestic worker continues to work for a good number of hours without the employer providing decent food and adequate rest in between. I cannot possibly survive it despite years of practicing intermittent fasting. You cannot possibly survive, too. You and me will raise our claim that we must be given adequate rest, sufficient food, and decent pay.

In my years of working closely with migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, ridiculous yet funny fits of impressions are abundantly thrown around. The whole gamut of negativity pertaining as to why domestic workers needing a day off, holding their passport, smart devices, stalking them on their social media accounts, depriving them of decent food, because they are servants, maids or helpers are the common lines that workers have learned from others. This dehumanising conditioning of the mind overwhelms employers in a manner that it flows out in their everyday interaction with domestic workers. It comes out in their daily conversation with family members and friends, such as this: ‘My maid is…’.. ‘My servant is’… statement.

Migrant domestic workers in the country press for the professionalisation of work situated in private homes. This means that, firstly, there must be a category of work under the Employment Act 1955, although the parliament has approved the bill recognising worker in domestic service as ‘employee’. Still, only half of the battle is won. With a legal protection in place, domestic ‘employees’ are able to pursue other basic rights due them. Secondly, like any of us who are gainfully employed, domestic workers claim a weekly day off, not as a matter of sympathy, luck or gratitude, but a claimable right that a violation of such right means to be meted with punishment. Thirdly, domestic workers have civil, cultural and political rights especially at this juncture of globalization, digital transformation and social movements. This means that as employees, they also have the right to assembly and form unions and participate in political discussions as part of their contribution to social transformation.

Still, many of us hold a taken for granted assumption that labels and names do not matter, in the scheme of things. But, honestly, when I hear my co-humans mention the word ‘maid’, ‘helper’, ‘servant’ as a prefix or suffix in a sentence, my blood boils. What is more disappointing is that they are also educated on human rights, inequality, or gender sensitivity. Hence, while domestic workers’ legal conditions may have been addressed, yet, our everyday social rituals of namecalling should be changed, first and foremost.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya, and may be reached at uacds@um.edu.my