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Adelina was one of the voiceless — Azrul Mohd Khalib

FEBRUARY 13 ­— The heart-breaking images of a person forced to sleep outside under a car porch on a threadbare mat, with a rigid foam pillow and a thin blanket/ hand towel for comfort and protection from the elements should be burned into our eyes and memory.

21-year old Adelina from Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia, came to Malaysia in search of an opportunity to earn money and the chance for a better life for herself and her family. 

She died two days ago after being rescued.

If you want more proof of how cruel we can be to our fellow humans, Adelina’s death should be added to the list.  Despite the façade of our modern, civilised and progressive society, her ordeal is demonstrative of the depths of which we can sink to.

She must have been living a day at a time, hoping for an opportunity or a chance when she would be released and able to go home. Instead, she was trapped in a nightmare, and now she will be going home in a coffin.

This case underlines the incredibly unfair and exploitative dynamic which continues to exist and persist in the world of domestic work in Malaysia.

We should not just be sad about what happened. We should be angry that despite the many documented cases before this such as Nirmala Bonat, such tragedies continue to occur.

The reality is that we often tolerate what happens even when such abuse happens under our own households and neighbourhoods. Some of us even turn a blind eye. 

We accept it because these individuals, despite appalling and sometimes inhumane conditions, are still willing to work here in hope of better wages. 

We exploit their vulnerability to ensure that our homes are clean, that someone takes care of our children and elderly parents, that our pets are fed and watered, and our cars are gleaming.

Sometimes even those who champion and speak loudly of human rights, forget that this doesn’t mean just the rights of Malaysians.

Some of us actually believe that such treatment is acceptable and tolerable because we are paying for their services. 

“Why should they be paid more? I am already paying so much to get them here. They live in my house and eat my food.”

“They can’t be trusted. They will fall under someone’s influence and run away.”

“She will fall under bad influence and steal valuables in our house.”

“She will get pregnant.”

People could argue that there are only a few rotten apples in the barrel but do any of the above sound familiar? These are just some of the many excuses which employers use to deny fundamental and basic rights to their domestic workers. 

Anyone who wants and can afford to have a live-in domestic helper, must be able to provide adequate accommodation, sustenance, healthcare, regular wages and days off. Just like any regular worker. This should be the minimum standard and non-negotiable. 

The power dynamic of ‘master-servant’ which is permitted to exist in law and in the mind-set of our society, continues to cause vulnerability, harm and cost the lives of people such as Adelina.— Graphic courtesy of Fahmi Reza
The power dynamic of ‘master-servant’ which is permitted to exist in law and in the mind-set of our society, continues to cause vulnerability, harm and cost the lives of people such as Adelina.— Graphic courtesy of Fahmi Reza

After all, this would be how you would want to be treated as an employee. Why should it be any different for a domestic helper? Is this so hard to understand?

Of course, reality is much different. Our existing laws, in fact, favour employers and deprive domestic workers of much needed protection which could help prevent such abuses from happening. Much of it actually depends on the kindness and decency of employers. 

The Employment Act 1995 does not recognise the domestic workers as actual workers but rather as servants who work in a private domain which is not subject to public scrutiny. This grievous exception to worker protections under existing employment legislation has resulted in domestic helpers being at the mercy of employers and vulnerable to abuse, torture and violence where remedial legal action often comes too late. 

In fact, those who flee their employers under such circumstances in an effort to save themselves, are instead often prosecuted, criminalised and deported. 

The degree of cruelty and savagery needed to inflict such harm on another human being is unfortunately, not unfamiliar to us. We have all seen it before. For many who went through such suffering, they were fortunate to have been rescued and survived. Adelina did not. 

We must continue to repeat her name. She had been dehumanised to the extent that her employers no longer viewed her as person. This was someone’s daughter. A woman who was struggling to help her family in Indonesia. But it is possible that the family dog was probably treated better than she was.

I am tempted to ask, what if she had died there on that porch? Would her employers have explained away her disappearance as yet another case of “pembantu rumah lari”? 

The power dynamic of “master-servant” which is permitted to exist in law and in the mind-set of our society, continues to cause vulnerability, harm and cost the lives of people such as Adelina. It also creates conditions of impunity and injustice. 

We need urgent reforms to our laws and regulations to provide better protection for domestic workers.

Being forced to sleep outdoors with the family’s Rottweiler was not what killed her. It was the perceived impunity and abuse of power over another individual that claimed her life. 

It was reported that neither the police nor the Indonesian Consulate had received previous reports of abuse from Adelina. How would she have been able to do so, under such conditions of captivity? In such cases, telephones and mobile phones are denied to them while their passports are illegally withheld by their employers.

There are many Adelinas out there. I’m sure of it. But they are often deprived of their voice.

Her last words were reportedly “balik..” 

May Adelina rest in peace, now free from pain and suffering. I hope those who are responsible for her death be brought to face justice.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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