‘Housemaids Need Protection of Law’

By The Irrawaddy 5 August 2017

May Sitt Paing: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the growing problem of abuse of young housemaids in Myanmar and legal protection for them. There have been a few high-profile cases over the past year including the abuse of young housemaids at Ava tailoring shop, and another case in [Yangon’s] Dagon Seikkan Township, which have not yet been settled. U Nyi Nyi, lawmaker in Yangon regional parliament representing South Dagon Township and Daw Hla Hla Yi, director of Legal Clinic Myanmar, join me to discuss laws and legislation for the legal protection of housemaids.

The issue of housemaid abuse is under the spotlight. U Nyi Nyi, you are currently acting for 13-year-old housemaid Ma Khaing Hnin Wai of Dagon Seikkan Township. How is the progress in the prosecution of her employer?

Nyi Nyi: She is 13 years old and was working as a housemaid in Dagon Seikkan Township. Her employers [a married couple] have been released on bail. The case was reported to me last month only after local residents were not happy with the charge of causing minor injury. She was pressed with a hot iron on many parts of her body, and locals were not happy with the charge of causing minor hurt. As far as I’m aware, her employers have been released on bail. The [Yangon Region] parliamentary committee on social affairs is coordinating with concerned authorities and locals to bring justice for the girl.

MSP: Firstly, the couple was charged with causing grievous injury. And then the charge was altered to minor injury. So, U Nyi Nyi, what do you think of the actions of the police force?

NN: As far as I know, police accepted the case under the charge of causing grievous hurt. But, after they submitted the interrogation and medical reports to the township law officer, when the case was brought before the court, the charge had been changed to causing minor hurt. As I am not a legal expert, I am not clear on the reasons behind the downgrading of the charge. But from the point of view of ordinary citizens, she is just 13—we must take her age into consideration—she was pressed with hot iron on various parts of her body, and was also hit in her face. The parliamentary social affairs committee made a field trip to Dagon Seikkan Township on Friday, and met the responsible persons. According to the medical superintendent [of the township hospital], they found 10 serious injuries on her, but only reported nine of them in the medical report. He said the hospital had had to wait and see if that injury would leave a scar. According to the updated medical report, she got injured in her face, which spoils the beauty of a girl, and the medical superintendent suggested that the assault was deliberate. The medical superintendent said the updated medical report has been submitted [to the police]. And the township judge also told us that the charge may change again depending on the results of the medical report.

MSP: The issue of the abuse of housemaids had come under the spotlight with the reported abuse of a young housemaid by the wife of a township judge in Bago over the past years. Then, the Ava tailoring factory case is a high-profile one. And in the last one, a young housemaid working at the house of a retired [Myanmar Army] lieutenant-colonel had got her teeth knocked out. The problem between housemaids and their employers is growing. What is your advice from the legal point of view to help solve this problem?

Hla Hla Yi: Firstly, a law is necessary to protect them. Sadly, there have been many reported cases of abuse of young housemaids lately. Such cases are prosecuted under the Penal Code, and the charge may vary depending on the severity of the injuries. Domestic workers are different from other employees in terms of the job nature. Other employees have fixed working hours, and they don’t have to work the whole day and sleep at the workplace. This different job nature poses risks to young and adult housemaids. Assessing the cases reported to our office, we found that they are either sexually or physically abused—to name a few serious things, for instance, pressing with an iron and hitting knuckles. They are also suffering from emotional abuse. So, the general laws covering general laborers are not enough for them. There is a need for the enactment of a specific law for them. Because their job involves greater risks than other employees, and young housemaids are at greater risk in particular. So there is a need for the announcement of a law dedicated to domestic workers. In our country, many don’t understand and therefore have no respect for human rights, and labor rights. So, domestic workers are forced into work in conditions akin to modern slavery—many of the cases we have seen and heard today. To prevent these, a dedicated law is necessary. But so far, there is still no such law. On the other hand, house owners also complain about bad domestic workers. I don’t deny that there are bad domestic workers. Some domestic workers are immoral and give trouble to house owners. We have also heard about such cases. There is a need for contracts to be signed between house owners and domestic workers. Only then, will we be able to curb the problems facing domestic workers to a certain extent.

MSP: Many legal experts have called for the announcement of a law regarding domestic service. But have you ever made your voices heard by the concerned ministries? What actions are you taking?

HHY: Yes, we’ve called for enacting laws to protect the rights of housemaids. But for the time being, we haven’t yet made an official request to the concerned ministries to enact such laws. But then, we have discussed enshrining provisions that protect women against sexual abuse at the workplace in the draft law on the prevention and protection of violence against women.

MSP: Young housemaids are exploited by house owners. They have no fixed working hours. And they are also subject to sexual and physical abuse. Legal experts have called for enacting legislation to give protection for them. As a lawmaker, what is your advice for the adoption of such law in Parliament? What steps are lawmakers taking?

NN: It directly concerns the Parliament at the Union level. Such a law shouldn’t be applied to cover Yangon Region only. There is an urgent need for lawmakers of both houses to discuss laws covering the terms of agreement between housemaids and house owners, the protection of housemaids and the regulations for housemaids. If there are right laws, and when there is momentum in their enforcement, domestic workers will have legal cover.

MSP: Besides the enactment of laws, raising the awareness of both house owners and domestic workers is also important. Ma Hla Hla Yi, what is your view?

HHY: There are two parts. Some employers know that hurting their housemaid is a crime, but they do it deliberately with the knowledge that housemaids are too weak to file a complaint and seek legal protection. And some employers do not know it is a crime. So, it is important to raise legal awareness of each and every citizen. But our capability to do so is limited. I think state media can play a role here to raise the awareness, warning them about the criminality of physical and sexual abuse of housemaids, because civil society organizations have limited resources to do so. I’d like to suggest that the government should raise awareness through television channels. Again, housemaids in our country are forced by limited job opportunities and poverty into this job, but not because of their own choice. It is therefore very difficult for them to file complaints and seek legal protection and justice. So even if a law won’t be enacted immediately, the government should at least adopt policies urgently detailing the rights of domestic workers as well as obligations of house owners and domestic workers.

MSP: What are your recommendations for public awareness of this issue?

NN: Prevention is better than cure. Now is the opportune time to take actions. In fact, we could have taken actions earlier. But it is not too late if we are committed to solving this issue. [Awareness-raising] pamphlets should be distributed in affluent and middle-class neighborhoods. The [number of] abuse cases have slightly decreased because of extensive coverage of the issue in media. Many more cases would have been exposed if those children knew how to file complaints. I’ve also heard that the potential [number of] abuse cases have been deterred by media reporting. More potential cases can be reduced by awareness-raising campaigns; for example, the social affairs ministry can erect billboards detailing the prison terms for sexual and physical abuse of young housemaids. This will largely reduce potential cases, I would say.

MSP: Thank you for your contributions!