THE article in The Star reflecting on International Women’s Day on March 8, “Eyeing balanced growth for women” (Nation, March 9; online at bit.ly/star_women), reminded us of the many blatant forms of discrimination against women that exist in our society.Suhakam’s (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) reference to the numbers of women workers and their earnings is important but I believe other aspects of the treatment of the most vulnerable women workers should be addressed urgently. Some discriminatory regulations are not only tolerated but seem to be officially endorsed by the authorities.The shocking and shameful prosecution and temporary imprisonment of a Nepali migrant worker, NT, in 2014 for an early termination of pregnancy by a qualified licensed general practitioner was an unprecedented event. Its implications for the inhumane treatment of women migrant workers have yet to be addressed.
It is a shocking example of moral policing of women migrant workers in Malaysia. Though NT was acquitted without her defence being called, the case nevertheless highlighted the plight of these migrant workers bound by draconian regulations under the Home Office, implemented by the clinics under Fomema (Foreign Workers Medical Examination Monitoring Agency) and the immigration department.Worker’s contracts in one case included the phrase that “the employee shall not have any romantic relationships during the period of her contract”. Common sense will tell us that this is a completely unrealistic and inhumane clause – it assumes that these young women who leave home to work in a foreign country for two to three years are expected to behave like robots who only work and sleep.Clearly, romantic relationships are common and so long as they do not interfere with an employee’s ability to work, it should not be a reason for immediate dismissal and deportation. The cost of securing their work as migrants is not cheap and can only be justified financially if these workers complete their full tenure (usually two years at least).
However, the official response by a Home Ministry spokesman at the time was: “They are here to work. Period. This is stated in their work permit.” Clearly this person has no inkling of basic human rights.Premature termination of a pregnancy has quite a catastrophic effect on a worker’s future, especially if the pregnancy is extramarital and abortion is illegal in her home country (eg, Indonesia). As Aegile Fernandez, from Malaysian migrant rights group Tenaganita commented on NT’s case, “work contracts had forced her to make the choice to abort or lose her job”.Data from an established reproductive health centre in Penang (KR) over the last 30 years clearly show there is a great unmet need for this group of migrants to have access to information related to contraception and abortions – this should be part of healthcare services provided by their employers.
Unfortunately, despite approaches made by NGOs to the workers’ agents, employers, consular representatives and the relevant government authorities on this issue, all have shown little interest in addressing this. These findings have been confirmed by the UN Gender Theme Group study undertaken by the Centre for Research on Women and Gender (Kanita) at Universiti Sains Malaysia and the Middlesex University Business School last year.From the employers’ point of view, Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan has reportedly said, “pregnancy and immediate dismissal ruling creates big problems faced by both employer and the worker”. Employers also then bear the cost of recruiting and training new staff.About 30% of KR clientele are migrant workers; staff there have observed that, usually, the first opportunity to advise them on contraception is when they are already facing an unplanned pregnancy and have to terminate to avoid dismissal. Some want to terminate but lack access and so just lose their jobs.
In the Nepali case, NT was dismissed although innocent of any offence and no longer pregnant. The reason for dismissal was she was a “bad moral role model”.In Penang alone in 2018, there were 35,000 women migrant workers in the manufacturing sector. A Fomema report states that approximately 3% of dismissals after a medical examination are due to a pregnancy (which works out to 1,050 women annually). We don’t know how many have avoided expulsion but Penang’s KR alone records that at least 1,000 migrant workers terminate their pregnancies annually to avoid dismissal.
It is not a gigantic task to set up information and clinical services that could prevent most of these abortions and premature dismissals if only the authorities would get off their moral high horse and provide women migrant workers with the same facilities offered to Malaysian women.Each of the over 1,000 migrant workers being dismissed prematurely represents a major emotional and financial setback for them and their families at home.Their forced departure benefits no party, especially if she has made a choice to terminate her unplanned pregnancy and continue to work.The authorities have arbitrarily decided they should be dismissed based on their concept of “sexual morality”. With such attitudes, gender equality does not seem achievable.
DR S.P. CHOONG
Founder member, Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia