Iso­lated and lack­ing labour rights, house­maids toil in si­lence

Thou­sands of girls from poor fam­i­lies across Myan­mar work as maids for wealth­ier house­holds, and of­ten face gru­elling work­ing hours and abuse

The Myanmar Times - - News - EI CHERRY AUNG news­room@mm­times.com

MA Khin Htar Kyu was in her late teens when she left her vil­lage in Aye­yarwady Re­gion’s Wakema town­ship with a younger sis­ter to find work in Yan­gon in or­der to help her in­debted fam­ily.

Upon ar­rival she took the first job she was of­fered and be­gan work as a live-in house­maid with a fam­ily in San­chaung town­ship. Four years have passed and the 23-year-old has rarely had a day off since. She usu­ally works from 4am to 10pm to cook, clean and take care of the young chil­dren.

With this gru­elling work, she earns US$85 per month, and free meals and lodg­ing.

“Some­times I want to take one day off dur­ing the week but I can’t,” Ma Khin Htar Kyu said, adding that she even cares for her em­ployer’s baby in the mid­dle of the night. “I was hap­pier as a farmer. I had a lot of quiet and free­dom. I need not care about any­thing ex­cept my crops,” she said wist­fully.

Across Myan­mar, there are tens of thou­sands of girls like Ma Khin Htar Kyu who leave their poor fam­i­lies to be­come a do­mes­tic worker for wealth­ier house­holds.

They usu­ally re­ceive lit­tle pay and lack labour rights pro­tec­tion, ac­cord­ing to women and child rights ac­tivists, who said the maids of­ten are young – or un­der­age – and vul­ner­a­ble to var­i­ous forms of abuse by their em­ployer.

Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, pro­gram man­ager with the Yan­gon-based NGO Women Can Do It, said work­ers usu­ally don’t com­plain about their sit­u­a­tion as they are iso­lated in their em­ploy­ers’ homes and lack sup­port when they want to re­port abuses.

“Myan­mar has no spe­cial sup­port group to help house­maids as they are seen as unim­por­tant work­ers,” she said, adding that more must be done to en­sure proper treat­ment of work­ers.

“House­maids should be set rea­son­able tasks … [and] em­ploy­ers should be re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing a safe work­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” said Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, whose or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­motes women’s ed­u­ca­tion and in­volve­ment in pol­i­tics.

Vul­ner­a­ble and un­pro­tected U Aung Myo Min, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at NGO Equal­ity Myan­mar, said many maids are chil­dren from poor fam­i­lies who can­not care for them. They are placed with wealth­ier house­holds and pro­vide free labour in re­turn for a roof over their heads.

“Some of these chil­dren have a lower sta­tus than do­mes­tic work­ers – they just get a meal and shel­ter, not money, for their work,” he said, adding that such is­sues also re­late to Myan­mar’s long­stand­ing prob­lems with en­sur­ing child rights and pre­vent­ing child labour.

U Maung Maung Soe, a lawyer in Yan­gon, told Myan­mar Now that maids are of­ten poorly fed, lack proper sleep­ing quar­ters and are reg­u­larly beaten. Yet court cases against abu­sive em­ploy­ers are very rare as maids lack le­gal av­enues to com­plain.

“They have lit­tle le­gal pro­tec­tion as there are no [labour] laws to pro­tect house­maids against em­ploy­ers. But if they are ac­cused of steal­ing money from their em­ployer they can eas­ily be pros­e­cuted,” said U Maung Maung Soe, who has pro­vided le­gal aid to abused work­ers.

Files at Yan­gon Re­gional Po­lice Head­quar­ters ob­tained by Myan­mar Now show au­thor­i­ties recorded only eight cases of crim­i­nal abuse of maids by em­ploy­ers in the whole coun­try be­tween 2011 to 2015, four cases of which were in Yan­gon.

In only one case an em­ployer was sen­tenced. U Kyi Hla Myint, a man from Yan­gon’s Ba­han town­ship, re­ceived three years in prison with hard labour in Fe­bru­ary 2014 for beat­ing a 14-year-old girl, burn­ing her hands with cook­ing oil and lock­ing her up in a room with­out food. Lawyer

In 2013, a 14-year-old house­maid man­aged to file a com­plaint with po­lice over beat­ings on her head, back, arms and chest by mem­bers of a fam­ily in North Dagon town­ship who em­ployed her for four years. Three of them are now fac­ing crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion at the town­ship court.

The vic­tim’s un­cle, U Myo Oo, said his niece will never work as a house­maid again. “She has trauma from that job,” he said, adding that he hoped the per­pe­tra­tors will face se­ri­ous crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment.

Le­gal pro­tec­tion needed Rights ac­tivists said the cases are merely a tip of the ice­berg as many abuses go un­re­ported be­cause vic­tims lack strength or knowl­edge to stand up to their em­ploy­ers, or be­cause is­sues are qui­etly set­tled by em­ploy­ers.

“Only if house­maids have ma­jor in­juries on their bod­ies can they have enough proof for a po­lice com­plaint. Oth­er­wise, it is very dif­fi­cult for them,” said U Maung Maung Soe.

U Aung Myo Min of Equal­ity Myan­mar said the govern­ment should draw up le­gal pro­tec­tions for do­mes­tic work­ers and in­form them of their rights. “House­maids need to know how and where they can file com­plaints against abuses by em­ploy­ers,” he said.

U Nyunt Win, deputy direc­tor gen­eral at the Fac­to­ries and Gen­eral Labour Laws In­spec­tion De­part­ment, told Myan­mar Now that the Min­istry of Labour, Im­mi­gra­tion and Man­power has held dis­cus­sions with civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions over draft­ing a law that would set a min­i­mum age for do­mes­tic work­ers and pro­vide ba­sic labour rights, such as work­ing hours and hol­i­days.

He ac­knowl­edged the work­ers’ sit­u­a­tion was cur­rently poorly reg­u­lated.

“There are many con­tro­ver­sial is­sues re­gard­ing house­maids, in­clud­ing work­ing hours and off-days,” U Nyunt Win said, be­fore adding that maids “should not refuse to pre­pare meals or wash clothes at the time when their em­ploy­ers come home”.

Myan­mar Now con­tacted sev­eral Na­tional League for Democ­racy law­mak­ers, but none had knowl­edge of the draft law to pro­tect do­mes­tic work­ers.

Im­prov­ing re­cruit­ment Bring­ing poor girls from ru­ral ar­eas to work as house­maids in wealth­ier house­holds in cities and towns is a long­stand­ing prac­tice in im­pov­er­ished Myan­mar.

The process of­ten in­volved rel­a­tives or neigh­bours of the girls who would con­nect them with wealth­ier fam­i­lies, but these days most maids are placed with an em­ployer by re­cruit­ment agen­cies or un­reg­is­tered bro­kers.

One in­for­mal bro­ker in Yan­gon named Daw Moe Moe said she had helped 10 fam­i­lies find a house­maid in re­cent years, earn­ing about $30 in com­mis­sion per worker.

She said she en­sures that both maid and em­ployer are suit­able and trust­wor­thy. “I will have to face any fol­low-up prob­lems, so I avoid strangers in this busi­ness,” Daw Moe Moe said.

Daw Khin Swe Win said her fam­ily in Yan­gon’s South Okkalapa town­ship had found a maid through her rel­a­tives. “Most house­maid bro­kers do not take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their work, so I re­lied on close fam­ily mem­bers,” she said.

The Yan­gon Kayin Bap­tist Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion has cre­ated an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Pro­tec­tion for Women in House­hold Ser­vices that tries to en­sure that girls are em­ployed by fam­i­lies who treat them well.

Naw Phaw Wah, the direc­tor of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, said her staff have helped about 100 maids find safe jobs and carry out reg­u­lar vis­its to check on their work­ing sit­u­a­tion.

“The em­ploy­ers are warned once if house­maids are found to be treated badly. If they ne­glect our sug­ges­tions the or­gan­i­sa­tion with­draws its house­maid,” she said.

Ma Khin Htar Kyu said she des­per­ately wanted to quit work as a maid, but she needs to send cash to her fam­ily and help them save up to $1000 to re­gain con­trol of their farm in Wakema town­ship, which they pawned to a wealthy neigh­bour.

“I can­not fore­see the day when our fam­ily can get back their land and I can go back to the vil­lage,” she said. – Myan­mar Now

“Only if house­maids have ma­jor in­juries on their bod­ies can they have enough proof for a po­lice com­plaint. Oth­er­wise, it is very dif­fi­cult for them.”

U Maung Maung Soe

Photo: Sup­plied/Face­book

This photo of an eight-year-old house­maid in Yan­gon’s Ba­han town­ship be­ing tor­tured by her em­ploy­ers went vi­ral on Face­book in 2015.

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