Domestic workers strip-searched, photographed – agency worker

Coming to work in Malaysia was a dream come true but nothing prepared Diah for tasks like confiscating passports, strip-searching women and taking nude photos of them.

“I was recruited by a Malaysian recruitment agency in Jakarta as a trainer for domestic workers and to be based in Malaysia. But when I got there, I was tasked to receive, orientate, manage and keep watch over domestic workers who were held captive,” recalled the young woman who hails from Java.

Speaking to Malaysiakini from an undisclosed location in Java, still hiding from her former employer since she left Malaysia in May 2019, Diah (not her real name) explained that it was part of her job to strip search.

“The strip search was to ensure the women were not concealing items like a tiny version of the karambit which is a small knife shaped like a claw and can be as small as two to three centimetres.

“I also check for tiny pouches filled with soil which their village traditional healer (dukun) would have given them as a protection amulet or to bring them success in their undertakings.

“All these items are confiscated and disposed of. After the strip search, I was forced to take photos of them as they got dressed, even if they protested,” she recalled.

Diah said the nude or semi-nude photos were stored in one of the office phones and used to threaten the women.

“They were told that the photos would be sent to their families if they ever misbehaved,” she said.

Diah explained that the women were locked in the agency office based in Bangi, Selangor which doubles as a temporary dwelling for the domestic workers before they were dispatched to their respective employers.

“I felt sorry for them. I was also forced to confiscate all their money, personal ID cards, certificates and even family photographs because my employer didn’t want the women to reminisce and feel depressed once they started work at their new employment.

“It was my task to inform them that their monthly salaries would be deducted for the first three months to cover their travel expenses.

“Depending on their Indonesian island of origin, their monthly wages ranged from as low as RM1,000 if they were from East Nusa Tenggara and as high as RM1,500 if they came from Java.

“Some Javanese women with experience would earn more than RM1,500,” she said, explaining that RM300 was deducted from their monthly salary for the first three months.

Passport details faked

Adding to the list of unlawful acts, Diah had reason to suspect the legitimacy of the recruitment process in Indonesia as one worker was only 16 years old but her passport declared her to be 25.

Recalling how the first day in Malaysia for the women was filled with distress, disappointment and dejection, Diah said the women would get upset and many would protest as she started her routine of confiscation, body checking and informing them of the house rules.

“One of the house rules was that they were not allowed to speak loudly or make too much noise which would call attention to the premises as lodging for migrant women.

“Since I was in charge of the women, I was told that my movements too were confined to the premises to ensure 24-hour supervision of the women.

“But I was given a key and allowed to go only as far as the local grocer to buy provisions for them.”

Diah explained that the women who entered and left the premises to their assigned employers usually did so at night to avoid drawing attention to their activity.

Branding very misleading

“I was recruited by an agency whose entire operation relied on the Maid Online System commonly known as SMO,” Diah recalled, adding that she found it very strange that everyone, including the domestic workers, was told to dress in the traditional Malay baju kurung, every day.

She said her employers were a Nigerian husband and Malaysian wife team who “insisted that we presented ourselves in a certain way and I found this strange because of what they were doing to the women,” said Diah.

She said most of the women were recruited from East Nusa Tenggara, Java and Medan and that the couple had big plans to expand their business to Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Dubai with workers from Indonesia.

She explained that business was fast-moving and during her six months in Malaysia, her employers already sent one Indonesian worker to Singapore via Malaysia.

“They drove a few women into Singapore so the potential employer would have a selection to choose from.

“There was usually an average of five to eight domestic workers at the premise at any one time and I met up to 12 new women in a single month.

“Employers place a deposit of RM8,000 to RM10,000 and depending on the urgency, sometimes, the domestic worker would be ‘delivered’ by the next day,” she said.

However, Diah also shared that not all employers were registered into the SMO system, especially the wealthy clients.

“My employer moved in these circles offering Muslim domestic workers to wealthy Muslim clients,” she explained, adding one of Malaysia’s top female performing artists almost became a client too.

However, Diah said many women who joined their new employment ran away.

“In the six months I was there, at least 10 women fled their new employers.

“I think the employers were not always truthful with what was expected of the women and some found their way back to the agency.

“Those who came back or were caught were beaten and endured hours of verbal abuse,” she said.

Misappropriation of facilities 

Diah said her role did not require her to input client information into the SMO, but she observed the data entry after every employer-worker pairing was successful.

“The employers were given as long as a three-month probation period to adjust to their new worker and likewise, the women were told they had three months to do well and impress their employers,” she explained.

Former Immigration Department international affairs head CR Selva

Former Immigration Department international affairs head CR Selva compares the functionality of the SMO to that of the role of Private Recruitment Agencies commonly known as APS, that are registered with the government, in order to stress his view of how the SMO had encouraged the “misappropriation of facilities provided to Malaysians”.

Selva, who spent 25 years in the Immigration Department explained that the SMO was merely a web portal where employers could submit their application for a Temporary Employment Visit Pass, also known as PLKS, for a new domestic worker, without the assistance of a recruitment agency.

“Designed to reduce costs for employers, the SMO removes the role of the agent in the recruitment and placement process of new migrant domestic workers, but in reality, employers still needed agents to find workers from source countries.

“With fewer procedures, the approvals from the SMO, operated by the Immigration Department, are quicker compared to the APS governed by the Human Resources Ministry, where the processes take a little longer as compulsory rules that apply include 200 hours of domestic worker training.

“This, compounded by the lack of clarity in the two different application processes, encouraged more recruitment agencies to crop up in aid of employers unfamiliar with the system.

“Further encouraging this trend was the fact that the SMO only required employer and worker details to be keyed-in for the PLKS application, so hundreds of SSM (Companies Commission of Malaysia)-registered companies calling themselves recruitment agencies mushroomed since the announcement of the SMO in January 2018,” Selva said.

No mechanisms in place

However, Selva, who is also a lawyer, explained that, unlike the APS, there were no mechanisms in place to hold these SSM-registered companies accountable for the safety and well-being of the domestic worker or beholden to the promises made to potential employers.

He said nothing was linking them as agents in these dealings.

Meanwhile, he said, every APS applying for the “C” licence that qualified the holder to recruit migrant workers, must set aside RM250,000 as a bank guarantee and are accountable for the welfare of every domestic worker they place with an employer, through a reporting mechanism.

“For their compulsory biannual reporting, APS agents are accountable for the welfare of the worker with personal visits to ensure pass renewals and wage payments,” Selva explained.

Temporary conduits

He stressed that such checks could not take place with the SMO application because these non-registered agents act only as temporary conduits for labour migration into Malaysia and many relinquish their responsibilities as soon as the worker was handed over.

“According to Diah’s retelling of what she witnessed, the alleged abuses of the workers started in the hands of the agent but this would not have happened if the agent was an APS licensee,” he said.

Selva emphasised that the SMO allowed employers to bypass responsible agents who were accountable to the government for the welfare of the workers and equally accountable to employers, especially if they were dissatisfied with their domestic workers.

“Hence there is a misappropriation of the system of accountability that could be provided by APS agents,” he reiterated.

The private company that hired Diah has since closed its office in Bangi.

However, it is unclear if the business’ registration with the SSM had been terminated after Diah left Malaysia in 2019 or if her bosses resumed operations in a different location.