The arrival of 29 Indonesian ‘maids’ in Malaysia got the local media very excited, so much so that two of the major Malaysian national newspapers—the New Sunday Times and the Star—devoted their front page and page 4 and 3 respectively to the story.

The ‘maids’ are back almost three years after the Indonesian government imposed a moratorium following reports of abuse at the hands of Malaysian employees and reaching a memorandum of understanding with new terms and conditions.

The plight of Indonesian domestic workers around Asia and the Arab world is well known—rape, abuse, exploitation, slavery are common occurence among the thousands of Indonesian women that leave the archipelago to look for work abroad. But for Malaysia the Indonesian government is confident to have put on paper measures to keep its citizens in relative safety.

Under the new rules workers are entitled to a day off per week, they will not be reprimanded for not being able to perform tasks outside of their job description, such as looking after children or the elderly, and their salaries will be placed in bank accounts that will be monitored to avoid manipulations.

The salary of a ‘maid’ is MYR700 per month, which is still way below the poverty line. And in any case, given that the women must pay a fee of MYR1,800, which equals more than three months of their wages, to the agents that sell their labour to wealthy Malaysian families, the monthly average drops down to a mere MYR550 per month, or IDR 1.6 million, or a pittance in anyone else’s terms, considering that the monthly income of the housekeeping attendant of the Malaysian hotel I stayed in is over MYR1,000 per month.

The idea of a poorly paid and badly treated foreign worker anywhere appalls me, but what’s got under my skin about the news coverage in Malaysia of the return of Indonesian women performing domestic labour is the inhumane, heartless and sadistic language the writers used in their stories.

In the 400 words article in the New Sunday Times, not once did the writer Punitha Kumar, who can be contacted at, referred to the women from Indonesia as women or even people, instead using the term ‘maid’ ad nauseam. Moreover, the article decried the fact that only 29 of the 106 promised ‘maids’ arrived (promised by whom?), blaming the bureaucracy of the Indonesian system for the short fall.

Similarly, Shaun Ho of the Sunday Star, who can be contacted at, in his 300 word piece, saw fit to mention the word ‘women’ once. Most disturbingly, both stories described the 29 women as a ‘batch’, as if they were a quantity of goods produced in a single run for the benefit of some consumer with deep pockets willing to pay the most meagre amount for someone to do a whole lot of work they would not do for themselves.

To add to the ghastly use of newsprint, the Star published a picture in the front page depicting a forlorn looking Indonesian migrant worker being collected by her jolly Malaysian employee with the caption: ‘You maid me happy’ – an attempt at humour or an indictment of an economic system stripping of dignity its most powerless pawns?

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