No one should work this way – Asian domestic workers endure staggering abuse

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Al-Akhbar Management

Over the past two years I traveled around Asia with Steve McCurry, a photographer known for fascinating faces, particularly the one on the cover of National Geographic magazine known as the “Afghan Girl,” to document the abuse some domestic workers endure at the hands of their household employers, either in their own country or abroad.

We found cases of child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, rape, starvation, excessive working hours, little or no pay and restricted freedom of movement or communication. We spoke with workers who had been beaten with a pot, a mop, a broom, a stick, a hanger, a cane and a metal pipe. We heard of women coming home in a coma or a coffin.

The victims were female and male, young and old, educated and illiterate (and their abusers also varied – female and male, rich and middle-class, living in Asia and in the Middle East). What linked them was a toxic combination of desperation, born out of poverty, and a lack of legal protection – in most countries, domestic workers are not protected by employment laws. In some societies, they are treated as “property” and not as individuals or even workers entitled to equal treatment and rights as most other workers.

We met a Nepali woman who had been blinded from repeated beatings by her female employer in Saudi Arabia and had had feces rubbed into her face. An Indonesian woman’s back was heavily scarred – almost in the shape of angel wings – by boiling water that her male employer in Malaysia had thrown on her. I tried to count the scars on another Indonesian woman’s body but lost track after reaching 20; she did not know what her male employer in Taiwan had used to cause many of them, including the slash across her face.

In Nepal we interviewed a pregnant woman who, when she told her female employer in Oman that her policeman husband had raped her, was thrown into prison for three months for seduction. Pregnant, she was in hiding because she feared her family would desert her. Another Nepali woman, hired by a family in Kuwait to look after 13 children, was beaten because she resisted working in the family’s brothel.

In a Hong Kong shelter Indonesian woman recalled how her female employer spoke to her: “Come here, dog. You are stupid. You are a dog. Helper, come here.” Also in Hong Kong we met another woman from Indonesia who had been given only bread in the mornings, instant noodles for lunch and leftovers (if there were any) for dinner. Her weight dropped more than 30 pounds before she finally ran away.

I met a Filipina who told me she had been given the top of the washing machine to sleep on. She giggled when explaining that her male employer liked to wash clothes at night time, so she had to lay there while the machine shook. She didn’t really think it was funny, but what could she do – the law in Hong Kong, one of the few places in the world that actually has legislation that covers domestic workers, requires them to live in the homes of their employers. Never mind that the “room” they may be given is a cupboard, a stairwell, a bathroom – or the top of a washing machine.

And we met an Indonesian woman whose employment agency staff tried to talk her into accepting a wage increase if she would stay with her mentally and physically abusive female employer. She feared for her life and wanted out. The employer had once said, “If I hit you and kill you, no one will know.” The agency then placed another woman in that home. Earlier this year, Hong Kong streets erupted in a massive protest against the abuse and inhumane conditions after a photo emerged of a young woman, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, severely battered from beatings and medical neglect she endured by that same female employer. A different agency had placed her, but employment agents are also culpable in the abuse.

When another Indonesian woman we met had run away in Malaysia because of beatings by her young male employer, the police took her back and her employment agent threatened legal action if she tried to run again. Many domestic workers have their passports taken from them by their employer or agent after arriving in a foreign country, which is one reason why they find it difficult to leave when the abuse starts. Many don’t know where to go. Many are just so desperate to send money home that they endure as best they can.

That same woman who had run away had lost a front tooth when her male employer threw a shoe at her for heating up the “wrong” soup and whose ear is now permanently deformed from his constant twisting of it. She is reluctantly considering going abroad again as a maid because her husband can find no work.

These are not uncommon experiences.

Steve McCurry and I thought the general public needed to see how the abuse scars lives as much as bodies. We wanted to help make the case for labor law protection for domestic workers. We also know that decency cannot be legislated, so we wanted abusers to know the public is now aware of what is going on behind their doors.

Many women in this line of work have good experiences – though their hours may be excessive, without overtime pay, benefits or days off, they earn more than they could back home. And there are certainly many decent household employers in every country.

But the International Labor Organization, which is the United Nation’s specialized agency dealing with work-related issues and which funded our photography project, estimates that there are more than 52 million domestic workers in the world. So even if a minority of them experiences the staggering meanness or the criminal evilness that we found, that is still likely a vast number of abuse cases.

In 2011, a new International Labor Organization Convention (treaty) specifically covering the rights of domestic workers came into force. Thus far it has been ratified by only 15 countries – by only one (the Philippines) in the Asia–Pacific region and none in the Middle East. Ratifying Convention No. 189 is important because it obliges governments to bring their national laws and enforcement in line with the recognition of domestic workers as deserving of the same labor law rights and protection accorded to most workers.

No one should work the way the people we photographed have worked.

Text by Karen Emmons, photographs by Steve McCurry

Indra, now 30, from Nepal, abused in Kuwait. “Everyone has left me. My brothers spit on the ground when they see me…I will try my best to prevent anyone from ever going abroad for domestic work. I can work to stop it. I will do whatever it takes.” Indra went abroad to pay medical and education bills, after her husband abandoned her and their three children. She never went to school and cannot read or write. She was hired to look after 13 children, but her employers’ family also ran a brothel in their building and beat her to make her work there too. When she fought back they tried, and failed, to sell her to a family in Saudi Arabia. She eventually escaped by climbing down an elevator cable. Injured, she returned to Nepal on a stretcher. Her family has rejected her and her injuries make it hard to earn a living.
Saraswati, now 19, from rural Nepal, abused in Nepal.
Saraswati, now 19, from rural Nepal, abused in Nepal. “She took me to my room and started beating me with her hand. Pulling my hair. With no one at home to stop her, she would beat me a long time…The Government should not allow children to be used as domestic workers.” Sarawati became a domestic worker aged 12 because her family could not afford to send her to school. A shopkeeper helped her escape from an abusive employer, but her next employer, in Kathmandu, was even more abusive. She has scars on her forehead and knee. She still works as a maid but is now finishing her education and helps other domestic workers learn about their rights.
Tutik, now 37, from Indonesia, abused in Malaysia.
Tutik, now 37, from Indonesia, abused in Malaysia. “After the first three weeks working there I tried to escape to the agent but the police took me back. The agent said, ‘If you try to escape again, I will sue you with legal action.’” For two years Tutik was only allowed to sleep for three hours a night. Every day she cleaned the house and every evening worked in the family bakery. Her young male employer knocked out her front tooth with his shoe. Her ear is deformed by his constant twisting. His mother hit her with sticks and a rattan cane, fracturing her wrist and backbone. When she asked to go home the employer refused to let her leave.
Sumasri, possibly in her 60s, from Indonesia, abused in Malaysia. “I go to the clinic regularly to get medication. Now it is not painful any more. It was most painful the first four months.” Sumasri’s back and thighs are heavily scarred from the boiling water her male employer in Kuala Lumpur threw on her. The story of exactly what happened to her often changes, each time she recounts it. Neighbors in her east Java village say she is no longer mentally stable.
Sritak, now 30, from Indonesia, abused in Taiwan.
Sritak, now 30, from Indonesia, abused in Taiwan. “He took a hot fork that he had heated on the stove top and he put it on my hand. He pressed the hot fork onto my hand…It’s quite strange, like he had the devil inside.” Sritak left her village because her family were too poor to eat every day. She worked from 6 am to midnight daily. Her passport was taken away and her freedom to talk to her family or outsiders was restricted. Her employer beat her, once with an iron pipe. He accused her of stealing and poured hot water on her body. She has more than 20 scars, including a long slash across her face.
‘Anis’, now 25, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong.
‘Anis’, now 25, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong. Five days after ‘Anis’ arrived, the family’s barking dog woke – and enraged – her female employer. Shouting in Cantonese, the woman pulled Anis into the kitchen and grabbed a butcher’s knife. Anis jerked away, but the ring finger tendon was sliced and the bone fractured. She escaped with the help of a building security guard and another domestic worker
Susi, now 29, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong.
Susi, now 29, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong. “My employer said she’s very rich. She said, ‘If I hit you and kill you, no one will know that’…The agent tried to calm me, saying, ‘I will give you a very good employer if you don’t tell anyone.’” Susi worked 20-hour days, only sleeping as the sun came up. Her Hong Kong Chinese employer frequently slapped her and made her sign a paper saying wages had been paid. After seven months without contact, her family forced a meeting, and Susi left. The agent then placed another domestic worker in that home. Note: Susi’s Hong Kong employer subsequently hired (through a different agency) another Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose eight months of ill-treatment made international headlines and resulted in criminal charges.
Sring, now 33, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong.
Sring, now 33, from Indonesia, abused in Hong Kong. “To help protect workers from physical abuse you need to educate them to understand the laws in their workplace. They don’t know that they have rights.” Sring’s first employer did not give her the legal minimum wage or her legally-entitled days off. For six months she had to give most of her salary to the recruitment agency. When her contract ended Sring was able to find another, better, employer. She still works for a Hong Kong family, but is now Chair of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, where she is the first person called to help Indonesian workers in trouble.
Siti, now 38, from Indonesia, abused in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Hong Kong.
Siti, now 38, from Indonesia, abused in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Hong Kong. “She said, ‘Come here, dog. Come here. You are stupid. You are a dog. Helper come here’.” In Saudi Arabia, Siti worked 20-hour days, didn’t get enough to eat and had to sleep on a mattress on the floor of a storage room. In Oman, when she complained about being sexually harassed by her male employer, his wife slapped and abused her. In Hong Kong, she had to work at night, was verbally abused and her food was rationed.
‘Beth’, now 20, from rural Philippines, abused in Manila.
‘Beth’, now 20, from rural Philippines, abused in Manila. “My employer would bang my head on the wall and she would throw hot water on me. She would burn my skin with cigarettes. She said this was the punishment for my sins.” ‘Beth’ was sold by her sister to a couple in Manila when she was 10. She worked from 4 am until late every day, cleaning and looking after their small child. She was not paid. Her female employer beat her frequently, with sticks, pots or pans, and, after the boyfriend once walked out, began burning her with cigarettes. After seven years locked in the house Beth escaped. She had never been to school, watched TV, or listened to music or the radio.
Mary Grace, now 35, from the Philippines, abused in Malaysia.
Mary Grace, now 35, from the Philippines, abused in Malaysia. “The owner of the agency is so bad. He said to me, ‘Fuck you. You bitch. All your family, your young son will die. You, fuck you. You are a bitch. Your son will die.’ Then he threw his coffee mug at my face.” Mary Grace needed to earn money for school fees and to feed her family. She had two employers, neither of whom gave her enough to eat. One day, she fainted while at a market. She woke up in an ambulance to find herself being sexually abused by the attendant. When she tried to report the assault at the hospital, a nurse told her to be quiet. She left Malaysia with no earnings.


I admire what Al-Akhbar is doing here to expose and shed a light on the plight of domestic workers around the globe originating from impoverished regions of the world.
Giving a voice to the voiceless and exposing the cruelty of the ones that have against the ones that don't!

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