Jakarta, Indonesia – Malaysia‘s attorney general office has assured Indonesia’s government that it will appeal a recent court decision to acquit a Malaysian employer after her Indonesian domestic worker died from physical abuse in February 2018.
Ambika MA Shan, 61, was cleared of murder charges over the death 21-year-old Adelina Sau by the Penang Island High Court on April 22.
The decision was criticised by human rights activists, with migrant worker organisations, the Indonesian government and Sau’s family pushing for the case to be re-opened.
Over the weekend, Hanif Dakhiri, Indonesia‘s manpower minister, met Malaysia’s Attorney General Tommy Thomas as part of an official visit to improve the safety of the hundreds of thousands of Indonesian men and women who work in the neighbouring country.
“We will reopen Adelina’s murder case,” Thomas was quoted as saying in a statement issued by the manpower ministry after the meeting in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. “We will appeal the Penang Island High Court decision.”
‘Acceptance of impunity’
Sau died from organ failure the day after being rescued with the assistance of Tenaganita, a migrant workers’ protection group. The organ failure was caused by acute malnutrition and untreated infected wounds, while the autopsy report also showed that Sau had a swollen face, acid burns and dog-bite marks at the time of her death.
Tenaganita told Al Jazeera that Sau was terrified to even tell the police about her experience when she was rescued. They believe she had been abused for more than a month by her employers, who made her sleep outside the house with their pet Rottweiler.
“From Adelina Sau’s case, [we can see that] the criminal justice system is not at all in favour of migrant workers,” said Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita. “There is now an acceptance of impunity, and with it, we are cultivating violence in our society.”
But the news of the appeal was welcomed by Indonesian workers in Malaysia.
“I hope after the death of Adelina, the Indonesian government can properly and justly implement the Law on Migrant Workers,” said Florensia, a domestic worker from West Timor who works in Kuala Lumpur.
The legislation was enacted in 2017 after lengthy debates in Parliament, but migrant workers and protection groups alike say it has had little impact so far due to poor implementation.
Florensia, who has worked in Malaysia for 11 years, said many potential migrant workers were not well-informed about risks such as abuse, exploitation and withheld salaries. She said she often warned others before they made a similar move abroad.
“If their motivation is to earn lots of money, I suggest they think again,” Florensia, who did not want her share her surname, told Al Jazeera. “Not all of what they hear is true.”
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‘History of exploitation’
Women working as domestic help in Malaysia are often isolated and confined simply by the nature of their work.
“Many of those we rescue are not given mobile phones, they’re not given days off,”Tenaganita’s Das said. This, coupled with the lack of information supplied by recruitment agencies, often leaves migrant workers in the dark, she added. “Only a minority are aware of services.”
Even if they do know where to seek help, many migrant workers are reluctant to do so, fearing arrest by the police due to their employers holding their migration documents or backlash from their embassy for running away. This makes justice even harder to come by, Das explained, even for the bravest among them.
“I do worry about the lack of justice,” Florensia, the migrant worker, said. “I’m just an average person working as a domestic assistant here. I hope the Indonesian government doesn’t close its eyes when things like this happen, so that it won’t happen to others in the future.”
Malaysian human rights activist Katrina Jorene Maliamauv told Al Jazeera that she was not surprised at the court’s decision last month.
“The acquittal of Adelina’s employers is particular egregious, but it also fits within Malaysia’s long history of exploiting migrants, violating their rights and systematically denying them access to justice,” Maliamauv said.
She added that even when legal cases brought by migrant workers are successful, at most they could hope to receive a portion of unpaid wages and be able to return to their home country without being detained.
Malaysia’s ministries of home affairs and human resources did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Around 250,000 foreign women work as domestic helpers in Malaysia, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, making the trip overseas because wages are better than at home. Of the 217 Indonesian migrant workers who died in 2017, 69 (32 percent) died in Malaysia, according to statistics from the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Agency.
“Recruitment agents tell these women how working abroad is like heaven,” Anis Hidayah, the cofounder of the Jakarta-based Migrant Care, told Al Jazeera.
A domestic worker’s salary in Malaysia can easily be two to three times that of one working in Indonesia, but many are exploited and even unpaid. Sau’s family claim that the 21-year-old herself was not paid for the two years she worked in Penang.
“Sadly, cases like Adelina Sau’s do not actually have much impact on potential migrant workers,” Hidayah said. “This is because there are simply not enough job opportunities for people, particularly women, in their hometowns and villages. They are willing to face the risks working overseas.”
Overseas remittances represent an important part of Indonesia’s economy, making up around one percent of the country’s total gross domestic product. Indonesians working in Malaysia contribute almost 20 percent of the $10m sent back to Indonesia every year.
For poorer provinces such as East Nusa Tenggara, where Sau was from, remittances make up a vital part of the local economy. So much so that even migrant workers’ rights activists believe moratoriums are not the best solution, as they only encourage undocumented migration and human trafficking. Sau herself entered Malaysia irregularly in 2015.
Hidayah said that the Indonesian government had made major efforts to improve legal assistance to workers encountering problems in Malaysia. Lawyers are accessible at embassies and consulates, and also provide assistance during court processes. However, there are simply not enough lawyers to assist all those requiring help.
“The Indonesian government’s efforts to protect migrant workers before they depart are unfortunately sporadic,” Hidayah said. “Pre-departure training is mostly focused on building work and language skills, rather than empowering on what they can do if they face problems … such as sexual violence or human trafficking.”
Solutions lie not just in better training but also in increasing alternative sources of incomes, activists said. Multi-stakeholder programmes such as DESBUMI – an Indonesian acronym for Villages Caring for Migrant Workers – involve both NGOs and the Ministry for Villages to develop local economic potential in sectors such as agriculture and handicrafts. Some villages have also introduced village-based laws that act as basis for legal advocacy and empowerment of migrant workers.
Without significant changes to rural economies, many workers will continue to depart Indonesia for work overseas every year. For many, there are simply no other options.