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Khin Htar Kyu was in her late teens when she left her village in Irrawaddy Division’s Wakema Township with a younger sister to find work in Rangoon in order to help her indebted family.
Upon arrival she took the first job she was offered and began work as a live-in housemaid with a family in Sanchaung Township. Four years have passed and the 23-year-old has rarely had a day off since. She usually works from 4am to 10pm to cook, clean and take care of the young children. With this gruelling work, she earns US$85 per month and free meals and lodging.
“Sometimes, I want to take one day off during the week but I can’t,” Khin Htar Kyu said, adding that she even cares for her employer’s baby in the middle of the night. “I was happier as a farmer, I had a lot of quiet and freedom. I need not care about anything except my crops,” she said wistfully.
Across Burma, there are tens of thousands of girls like Khin Htar Kyu who leave their poor families to become a domestic worker for wealthier households.
They usually receive little pay and lack labor rights protection, according to women and child rights activists, who said the maids are often are young — or underage — and vulnerable to various forms of abuse by their employer.
Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, programme manager with Rangoon-based NGO Women Can Do It, said workers usually don’t complain about their situation as they are isolated in their employers’ homes and lack support when they want to report abuses.
“Myanmar [Burma] has no special support group to help housemaids as they are seen as unimportant workers,” she said, adding that more must be done to ensure proper treatment of workers.
“Housemaids should be set reasonable tasks… [and] employers should be responsible for creating a safe working environment,” said Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, whose organisation promotes women’s education and involvement in politics.
Vulnerable and unprotected
Aung Myo Min, executive director at NGO Equality Myanmar, said many maids are children from poor families who cannot care for them. They are placed with wealthier households and provide free labor in return for a roof over their heads.
“Some of these children have a lower status than domestic workers — they just get a meal and shelter, not money, for their work,” he said, adding that such issues also relate to Burma’s longstanding problems with ensuring child rights and preventing child labour.
Maung Maung Soe, a lawyer in Rangoon, told Myanmar Now that maids are often poorly fed, lack proper sleeping quarters and are regularly beaten. Yet, court cases against abusive employers are very rare as maids lack legal avenues to complain.
“They have little legal protection as there are no [labor] laws to protect housemaids against employers. But if they are accused of stealing money from their employer they can easily be prosecuted,” said Maung Maung Soe, who has provided legal aid to abused workers.
Files at Rangoon Division’s police headquarters obtained by Myanmar Now show authorities recorded only eight cases of criminal abuse of maids by employers in the whole country between 2011 to 2015, four cases of which were in Rangoon.
In only one case was an employer sentenced. Kyi Hla Myint, a man from Rangoon’s Bahan Township, received three years in prison with hard labor in February 2014 for beating a 14-year-old girl, burning her hands with cooking oil, and locking her up in a room without food.
In 2013, a 14-year-old housemaid managed to file a complaint with police over beatings on her head, back, arms and chest by members of a family in North Dagon Township who employed her for four years. Three of them are now facing criminal prosecution at the township court.
The victim’s uncle, Myo Oo, said his niece will never work as a housemaid again. “She has trauma from that job,” he said, adding that he hoped the perpetrators will face serious criminal punishment.
Legal protection needed
Rights activists said the cases are merely the tip of the iceberg, as many abuses go unreported because victims lack strength or knowledge to stand up to their employers, or because issues are quietly settled by employers.
“Only if housemaids have major injuries on their bodies can they have enough proof for a police complaint. Otherwise, it is very difficult for them,” said Maung Maung Soe.
Aung Myo Min, of Equality Myanmar, said the government should draw up legal protections for domestic workers and inform them of their rights. “Housemaids need to know how and where they can file complaints against abuses by employers,” he said.
Nyunt Win, deputy director-general at the Factories and General Labour Laws Inspection Department, told Myanmar Now that the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Manpower has held discussions with civil society organisations over drafting a law that would set a minimum age for domestic workers and provide basic labor rights, such as working hours and holidays.
He acknowledged the workers’ situation was currently poorly regulated.
“There are many controversial issues regarding housemaids, including working hours and off-days,” Nyunt Win said, before adding that maids “should not refuse to prepare meals or wash clothes at the time when their employers come home.”
Myanmar Now contacted several National League for Democracy lawmakers, but none had knowledge of the draft law to protect domestic workers.
Bringing poor girls from rural areas to work as housemaids in wealthier households in cities and towns is a longstanding practice in impoverished Burma.
The process often involved relatives or neighbours of the girls who would connect them with wealthier families, but these days most maids are placed with an employer by recruitment agencies or unregistered brokers.
One informal broker in Rangoon named Moe Moe said she had helped ten families find a housemaid in recent years, earning about $30 in commission per worker.
She said she ensures that both maid and employer are suitable and trustworthy. “I will have to face any follow-up problems, so I avoid strangers in this business,” Moe Moe said.
Khin Swe Win said her family in Rangoon’s South Okkalapa Township had found a maid through her relatives. “Most housemaid brokers do not take responsibility for their work, so I relied on close family members,” she said.
The Yangon Kayin Baptist Women’s Association has created an organisation called Protection for Women in Household Services that tries to ensure that girls are employed by families who treat them well.
Naw Phaw Wah, the director of the organisation, said her staff have helped about 100 maids find safe jobs and carry out regular visits to check on their working situation.
“The employers are warned once if housemaids are found to be treated badly. If they neglect our suggestions the organisation withdraws its housemaid,” she said.
Khin Htar Kyu said she desperately wanted to quit work as a maid, but she needs to send cash to her family and help them save up to $1,000 to regain control of their farm in Wakema Township, which they pawned to a wealthy neighbour.
“I cannot foresee the day when our family can get back their land and I can go back to the village,” she said.
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 1 July 2016.