During a recent house-hunting excursion I was struck by a funny-looking store room. I thought it was strange that it had windows. When I was told it was the maid's room, I was even more amazed.
It was so small that swinging a cat would have resulted in a concussed animal. You could probably stuff two and a half single beds in it - if you had a chainsaw.
The room was almost like an afterthought, a small space perched on the edge of a house, like some embarrassing corner. My curiousity was raised. Surely this could not have been a serious room to live in. After all, I've seen numerous episodes of Downton Abbey and their servants' quarters have plenty of space to have trysts and fights in.
In fact, counties in present-day England have laws concerning minimum room sizes. A sleeping room requires 6.5msq if the living room area is separate. As a comparison, a cell in a US prison would be about 4.5msq.
The room I saw would have been less than 5msq. I'm not sure though if that qualifies as "inhuman" because I also read in a forum for expats in Hong Kong that maids there have to make do with between 2.5 and 4msq. One anecdote told of a maid who was expected to sleep on a mattress under the sink.
Although official figures say that 240,000 maids work in Malaysia, the Malaysian Maid Employers Association estimates that the actual number is closer to 700,000 when illegals are taken into account. These hardworking individuals enable parents to work long hours while letting children experience a rich extra-curricular regime of tutorial classes and piano lessons.
Yet, it seems like cheap maids are a valuable resource that many have taken for granted and advantage of. Stories of maid abuse in Malaysia have received much publicity. Most notable is the case of Nirmala Bonat, whose employer was sentenced to 12 years jail for scalding her maid with hot water and an iron.
While we hope this is an isolated incident, the ugly truth is that maids are treated as second-class citizens and - even worse - that this is accepted by Malaysian society.
Apart from the cramped living conditions promoted by whoever it was that designed the house, we also restrict their movement by holding their passport or by not allowing them to leave the house at any time.