07 August 2013


There's a short story by O. Henry that describes a young woman working in a department store for wages of $6 a week, and the meager life she led, the temptations she faced, and the things she almost did to escape from such a life. This story is told from the perspective of a scene near the gates of heaven where various people are standing around awaiting judgment. There's an Angel Policemen walking around trying to get people in order, and he asks the narrator if he belongs with a certain group of well-dressed gentleman.

"Who are they?" the narrator asks. 

The Angel Policemen replies, "Why, they are the men who hired working girls, and paid 'em five or six dollars a week to live on. Are you one of the bunch?"

The narrator responds indignantly, setting the record straight, "Not on your immortality. I'm only a fellow that set fire to an orphan asylum and murdered a blind man for his pennies."

That story spoke very keenly to me. The scene at the gates of heaven is a fanciful one, but the idea that you'd rather face God with only arson and murder on your hands rather than the fact that you profited off of the suffering of your employees is poignant.

In Malaysia, it is far more common than it is in America for individual families to have employees. Many people might have a househelper come to clean and cook a day or two a week, but there are also households with live-in maids, gardeners, drivers, or nannies.

Tragically, many of these employees are treated most unjustly and abused--often they are not respected as individuals and sometimes not even given basic human rights.

Let me add right here that the mistreatment of employees is not specifically a Malaysian problem. It's a worldwide problem. In America, because the middle-class generally can't afford maids or gardeners, it tends to look more like ill-treatment of those in service professions, like waiters or manicurists or nurses.

The apartment that my family currently lives in has one room that was described to us as the "maid's quarters" when we were first looking at the house. It's not uncommon for houses here to be built with a such a room, designed with a live-in maid's needs in mind. The maid's room in our house adjoins the kitchen and washing area, and was my bedroom before I got married, and I can tell you, it's a most demoralizing place. It's physically impossible to put a twin bed in that room, so I slept on a fold-up cot that was more sleeping bag-sized than bed-sized. We managed to fit an ironing board in between my bed and the wall, but I had to kneel on my cot to do the ironing, there was not enough room to stand up between the cot and the ironing board. The room has one window, about a 12x12 inch square up high, a few inches from the ceiling. And this is the kind of living quarters that might well be offered to an employee of this house.
We hear stories of inviting a house helper to share lunch with the family, and afterward, deducting several dollars from her week's pay because she ate some of the family's food. We hear of families who forget when their helper is coming to clean and go out, or invite guests over without informing the helper that she won't be able to clean. The househelper may only find this out after her usual 30 minute walk in Malaysia's typical 90 degrees and sunny weather to her place of employment and finds it locked, or is told that she can't clean today. She's sent away without any reimbursement for the fact that she spent her time walking to work, other the knowledge that she won't actually get any work, and she won't be paid today.

We've seen maids out on outings with the families whose children they care for. At McDonald's the parents will buy food for themselves and for their children--but not for the maid. Then the maid will spend the meal not eating, but feeding the children and making sure they stay well-behaved and not bothering the parents.

We hear of maids getting beaten and locked in their bedrooms as punishments for any perceived failure in their duties.

We hear all of these stories from the maids and househelpers themselves, they are our own beloved friends and neighbors who are misused this way--and we hear their cries against the injustices done to them by their employers.

But it perhaps doesn't matter so much that we hear. We do hear, and we cry with them, and our hearts are angered by how people treat those they have power over. I get angry when I see the rich abusing the poor purely because they can, and because they can get away with it. But I am not a powerful person, and it's not my anger that matters, not in the long run. I can tell the truth, I can write about what goes on, but I can't stop it, not all of it. The fact is, that God also hears the cries of these powerless men and women who are treated unjustly, and that angers Him. God is on the side of the oppressed. Such injustice will not continue forever, and that is my hope in the midst of tears.

*Quotes from "An Unfinished Story" by O. Henry
Moonofsilver said...

Oh Rachel that is terrible! At least in America they can quit or sue if someone treats them that way! I think we have a bit of an opposite problem here--the poor abusing the rich, telling them they owe them something, when "rich" people, yes, should treat everyone with kindness, but that doesn't mean that any people, or any person, (in my thinking) should be forced to pay all their life for someone who doesn't want to work and lives on welfare (I know, welfare is sometimes necessary, but where I live I know people who have been on it for all their lives. And they have iPhones. and nice cars. They spend all their money on themselves and their kids have nothing, and have to come to the neighbors house asking for food) I wish I knew something to do about the rich abusing the poor and the poor abusing the rich. I think people don't understand hard work in America anymore--but I don't see that yet in other countries. Most people from India or Mexico or China that I've met are very very hard workers, and make Americans look lazy. Oh, I hope this comment isn't too long! Stuff like this just makes me really mad, because I see it, but don't know what to do.

Tayler Morrell said...

That is terrible. Can the embassy help in anyway? Get in contact with the UN or something?
Our Fairy Tale

Kristina said...

I think you made a good point about it being worldwide. Sometimes things play out in different ways, but there are people who tend toward certain behaviors everywhere. I think of sex trafficking as a problem in other countries, but it is a problem here in the U.S.

Sarah Pete said...

Oh my goodness. You read about these things and you almost hope it's not real. That's so terrible! I can't imagine treating someone who serves you so cruelly, as less than human. That's awful!
It's awful in the States, when people ignore or yell at someone, and it's awful in other countries. Abuse looks different in every culture. It truly is so sad.
Is there a way people try to help? Or is it just a social norm? Do the maids feel like they're being mistreated or do they accept it as a reality of their profession?

Being Reese 2 said...

This just makes me so sad. I recently read a post from a woman who was trying to decide whether or not to fire her Nanny because she practiced Ramadan, and was afriad the Nanny wouldn't be able to handle her duties. In comparion to what you just spoke of it may sesm minor, but it's these ethnocentric ideals that lead to everything you just described.

99.9% of the time I realize how blessed I am to have born in this country and not have to deal with mistreatment and abuse people in other countries suffer through. 0.01% of the time I forget and complain about my first world problems.

If you ever want to feel nauseated (such a tempting offer right? ) Watch Park Avenue. It's a documentary that focuses on the richest street in NYC. It's disheartening to see that much wealth and entitlement. I've never understood why people who are well off think they can treat others who aren't, any kind of way they want to. So so sad.

I may try to squeeze this book in before fall classes start. Thanks for sharing this.