Better justice for domestic workers

National 5 minutes, 19 seconds


LOW wages, long working hours and no rest days.

Not an appealing prospect for anyone, although almost six per cent of Brunei’s residents live under such conditions.

Over 22,000 domestic workers employed in the Sultanate, mostlyfrom Indonesia and the Philippines, cited similar complaints.

A recent study conducted by three women’s advocacy groups revealed that domestic workers in Brunei are paid less than $1 an hour.

Nisaa Yura of Jakarta-based NGO Solidaritas Perempuan said that on average, those interviewed for the study worked 12 to 17 hours a day, for a monthly salary ranging from $200-300 per month.

Filipino domestic workers command a fee of between $300 to $400 a month.

“There is definitely a disparity between the working hours and wage rate,” she said.

Contract substitution remains the most prevalent problem among domestic workers.

In their home country, these women sign a contract that offers higher pay and weekly rest days, but once in Brunei, amendments are made to their salary packages, often with $50 to $100 less.

As long as they live in the employer’s house and they eat with the employer they think that $200 to $250 is enough,” Nisaa said.

“But if we step back and see the reason why Indonesian women become domestic workers, it’s about structural poverty. Becoming a domestic worker or migrant worker is not solving the problem. With the wages they can send their children to school, they can pay their loans, etc, but it cannot solve the poverty itself. It’s not improving their economic conditions.”

Contract substitution has become a rampant practice among Filipino domestic workers since the minimum wage demanded by the Philippine government increased in the late 1990s.

“Most workers are aware their salary will be lowered when they come here but they are still willing to sign the amended contract because they see it as ‘clean money’ that will not be taxed,” said Nur Judy Abdullah, vice president of Brunei’s Council on Social Welfare (MKM).

She added that the amended contract is usually put forth by the agency that recruited the worker, to comply with salaries Bruneian employers are accustomed to paying.

Recruitment agencies also level hefty recruitment fees on the worker - ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 - which they pay back through monthly deductions from their salary.

“The worker usually will not start earning money until they’ve been in the country for six months to a year,” Judy said.

When asked if this practice is legal, Judy said that it was a vague area defined by law, and that there was not proper regulation of recruitment fees.

Unpaid wages or delayed payment is also a major concern among domestic workers but difficult to prove as all transactions are made in cash.

Judy suggested that to protect workers’ rights, Brunei should follow the Singaporean law which requires employers to deposit their maids’ monthly salary into a bank account.

“Unless a domestic worker shows a pay slip it is difficult to prove whether she has been paid or not. Usually women with complaints of unpaid wages will go to their embassy to make complaints instead of to the police. The majority of these cases go unreported.”

In 2012, the Indonesian embassy recorded 55 cases of unpaid wages, 55 complaints of being overworked and 42 cases of abuse or harassment while the Philippine Embassy recorded 11 cases of unpaid wages and seven cases of maltreatment, including one attempted rape.

For the majority of domestic workers, legal redress and access to justice is often hard to come by.

Jordan Chang of the Women’s Legal Bureau of the Philippines recounted one case where a Filipino maid was physically abused by her employer but found little in the way of justice.

“She was pushed down a ladder and the male employer also hit her. She was not paid for several months so sought the help of her recruitment agency first, there was no action. So she sought the help of the Philippines embassy.”

After the embassy made enquiries, the employer was still unresponsive so she asked to return to the Philippines. “She was only seeking payment, not compensation for the abuse,” Jordan said.

However, migrant workers that choose to seek legal remedies for their grievances often end up blacklisted.

Jordan cited a case of a domestic worker that lodged a police report of sexual harassment against her employer, who in turn filed a counter -claim. Due to the legal action against her, she was put on the immigration blacklist and prevented from returning to Brunei.

“The Philippine embassy only reports to police if the domestic worker insists, what they try to do most of the time is reconcile because the chances are the worker will be on the losing end. They can easily be blacklisted and they can’t return to Brunei anymore and they don’t want that to happen.”

Jordan and Nisaa agreed that cases of abuse and rape of domestic workers in Brunei are uncommon, and that the Sultanate has a better track record compared to its neighbours, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as countries in the Middle East.

However, cases of abuse often go unreported because there are many challenges in proving the offence.

“From our interviews, abuse might not be that prevalent, because we only know about the cases that are reported,” Jordan said.

“But there is also verbal and psychological abuse. It becomes common and people no longer look at it as abuse. These exploitative conditions are realities to so many domestic workers.”

All the NGOs involved in the study said the Brunei government should improve access to justice so domestic workers feel comfortable reporting their grievances.

“Our recommendation for Brunei and all ASEAN countries is to provide an environment where workers feel dignified in working and not just a machine, working for long hours. They should be informed of their rights and made to understand them.”

Sixty per cent of ASEAN migrant workers are not covered by national labour laws, trade unions or minimum wage.

“The recognition of domestic work as formal work, is our primary recommendation to Brunei and ASEAN,” said Jordan.

“We already have the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) convention recognising domestic work as formal work, and Brunei should ratify the convention.”

The convention would ensure domestic workers enjoy conditions “not less favourable” than other workers, requiring governments to ensure their rights to collective bargaining and a full rest day every week.

The Brunei Times