Maid's escape from high-rise leads to crackdown on agencies in Malaysia

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Friday, June 22, 2007

An American poster from the 1930s depicts a stereotypical image of a housemaid.

Following the dramatic escape of an Indonesian housemaid from a 15th-floor apartment in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government has suspended the licences of 19 housemaid agencies, following complaints of abuse and unpaid wages.

The move by the Home Ministry yesterday comes after an Indonesian woman named Ceriyati Dapin climbed from a 15th-floor Sentul apartment on a makeshift cloth rope to escape an employer she said was abusive. In the incident last Saturday, the 33-year-old woman made it to the parapet of the 12th floor when she became fearful and froze. She was eventually rescued by the fire brigade. She said she had been repeatedly beaten and starved by her employer.

The maid agency that sent Ceriyati to her employer was a company called Kemas Cerah, and it is among the agencies suspended. The employer was arrested on Monday and remains in custody while police investigate Ceriyati's claims, a police spokesman told the Associated Press.

"The maid was supposed to be sent to an employer in Terengganu but was indiscriminately sent to another employer," Home Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad was quoted as saying by Bernama news agency.

In Indonesia, where newspapers have been carrying the story on their front pages, the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta assured the Indonesian government it was doing all it could to investigate the case.

In addition to suspending the agencies, 85 agency owners and managers have been blacklisted, and will be prevented from opening new operations under different names, the ministry said.

"They have until the end of this month to appeal the suspension and if they fail to do so, their permits will be immediately terminated," Radzi was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times.

This was the first time the ministry has taken such an action on maid abuse, Radzi added.

An industry group, the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies, or Persatuan Agensi Pekerja Asing (PAPA), said it was shocked by the government's move, and that it could inconvenience maids.

"We panicked when news of this came out. No show-cause letters were given, nor were we informed by the ministry beforehand on the decision," the group's president, Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, was quoted as saying by The Star. "In addition to this, 12 of those agencies are registered under Papa, and have a good track record," Raja Zulkepley said.

The suspensions will leave maids in a lurch, Raja Zulkepley said.

"Almost every day, about 200 maids from various countries, especially from Indonesia, make their way into the country," he told The Star. "With these 19 agencies under suspension, these maids are all now stuck in immigration and others in hostels, unable to move anywhere. We dare not even think about the other maids who are coming tomorrow, or the day after."

Malaysia relies heavily on migrant labour, mainly Indonesians, for such jobs as domestic servants, construction and plantation work.

Around 1,200 Indonesian housemaids run away from their employers every month, according to the Associated Press, often because of abuse, unpaid salaries or harsh working conditions.

The government has established a 24-hour hotline for reports on maid abuse. The hotline numbers are 03-8880 1455 and 03-8880 1399.

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