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The difference between domestic workers and servants

It is high time we stopped calling domestic workers 'maid', 'servant' or 'helper'.

Linda Lumayag
4 minute read

The current campaign to call women (and men, too) domestic workers – those who provide domestic labour in our homes to make our lives better – is in tandem with the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention 189's call to recognise domestic work as work. 

Why are migrant domestic workers in Malaysia pushing this agenda?

Since institutionalising the entry of foreign women workers as domestic workers in Malaysia in the early 1980s, the word "maid", "servant" or "helper" has been a popular label to refer to women (and men) who are placed in individual private households doing menial and dull work that our women have vacated since the shift to productive labour market began. 

The popularity of calling a woman a "servant", "maid" or "helper" can be traced to the feudal system of relationships based fundamentally on land possession – an important resource to establish economic and political power in colonial times. This landlord-tenant/master-slave relationship continues to morph, recreating different types of relationships that amplify power hierarchy.

In class societies like Malaysia, the socialisation process takes you to how people working or providing service within the households are named, labelled and identified to represent different class positions, power, gender and even political affiliation. 

Our laws, policies and normative practices are in fact reflective of our historical past. Take, for example, the Employment Act 1955, and how occupations and work categories are identified and have become normalised in the current work and employment context. 

One of these is how we name women (and men) who work in our private homes. Despite the benefits we accrued from employing domestic labour, nowhere is this categorisation recognised legally. What remained, until recently, was the category of "domestic servant". 

Linking the archaic and colonial practices of slavery with the label of servants for women providing domestic service is a view that must be abhorred. Hence, the ILO, via Convention 189, declared that, domestic work must be recognised as work. Domestic workers are not slaves, maids or helpers. They are domestic workers – in form and substance – with labour rights as well as obligations towards their employers.

This means that Malaysia needs to acknowledge that domestic labour is visible work, and ensure workers are compensated for the work they do. The basic right to food, rest and working in a safe environment must take precedence over our own demented, biased and judgemental tendencies.

Domestic work is a category of work. An honourable, decent work, in fact. When we recognise domestic work, we do not see strangers at home, we do not see them as servants or maids. They are workers who have basic rights and responsibilities – like you and me. It is not only because the contract states that you provide them food, shelter, accommodation and rest days. 

It is impossible, or dancing quite close to it, for a domestic worker to continue working for a good number of hours without the employer providing decent food and adequate rest in between. I cannot possibly survive that despite years of practicing intermittent fasting. You cannot possibly survive, too. You and I will raise our claim that we be given adequate rest, sufficient food, and decent pay.

In my years of closely working with migrant domestic workers in Malaysia, ridiculous yet funny fits of impressions have been abundantly thrown around. The whole gamut of negativity pertaining to why domestic workers needing a day off, holding on to their passports and smart devices, stalking them on their social media accounts and depriving them of decent food, because they are servants, maids or helpers, are some of the common stories that workers have learnt from others. 

This dehumanising conditioning of the mind overwhelms employers in a manner that flows out in their everyday interactions with domestic workers. It comes out in their daily conversations with family members and friends such as these: "My maid is..." or" My servant is...".

Migrant domestic workers in the country press for the professionalisation of work situated in private homes. This means that, firstly, there must be a category of work under the Employment Act 1955, although the Parliament has approved the bill recognising a worker in domestic service as an "employee". Still, only half of the battle has been won. With legal protection in place, domestic "employees" are able to pursue other basic rights. 

Secondly, like any of us who are gainfully employed, domestic workers must get to claim a weekly day off, not as a matter of sympathy, luck or gratitude, but as a claimable right. A violation of such a right needs to be met with punishment. 

Thirdly, domestic workers have civil, cultural and political rights, especially at this juncture of globalisation, digital transformation and social movements. This means that as employees, they also have the freedom to assembly, form unions and participate in political discussions, as part of their contribution to social transformation.

Still, many of us hold a taken-for-granted assumption that labels and names do not matter, in the scheme of things. But, honestly, when I hear my co-humans mention the word "maid", "helper" or "servant" as a prefix or suffix in a sentence, my blood boils.

What is more disappointing is that they are also educated on human rights, inequality, and gender sensitivity. While domestic workers' legal conditions may have been addressed, our everyday social rituals of name-calling should be changed, first and foremost.

Linda Lumayag is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.