In a modern, tidy and spanking-clean apartment, Sharon and Zeni are sitting on the sofa and chatting easily, laughing as the pug-in-residence, Dave, jumps up onto the cushions and wedges himself between them. It’s the kind of relaxed, friendly camaraderie normally seen between friends—except Zeni has in fact been with Sharon and her family for five years as a domestic worker.
Even this small demonstration of warmth and trust between an employer and employee (to put it in the coldest terms) is enough to make you wonder how many of us also share the same sort of working relationship with our maids, even to the point of asking whether they’re allowed to sit on the same furniture in our houses or to eat the same food as us. If you’re looking for a visible hierarchy, it exists in plenty of households in this country: the maid gets the smallest room in the house, the cheapest, most basic food, and the longest hours, considering that a live-in maid’s job effectively means that she rarely leaves her workplace.
In contrast, Sharon’s approach towards the way that she feels domestic workers should be treated seem positively enlightened and a world away from some of the attitudes that are often on display. “I don’t think I treat Zeni any differently from how I treat anyone else,” she says. “It’s like having family—and you`d never treat a member of your family badly. What we have is a mutual respect for each other: she`s someone who has made a choice in her life because she doesn’t come from the same lucky background as ourselves, but she has chosen to do well. She takes pride in her work.”
Earlier, I watched Zeni playing with Sharon`s young son, and it was clear that she obviously adored both him and her work, as opposed to simply viewing it as a job to be completed by the end of the day. A year and a half ago, Sharon and her husband even bought Zeni a car so that she could drive their son to school in the morning—and when you think about it, how many Malaysian citizens would trust their domestic workers enough to buy them a car? “We start our working day very early, so it`s a real help to have Zeni there as we know our son is safe with her when she takes him to school. We keep the car in our name, but that’s really to deal with fixing and maintaining it, which we’re responsible for doing.
Part of our reason for buying the car was also because she used to have to catch the bus to our neighbourhood at four in the morning, which we didn’t feel was particularly convenient for her, as well as the fact that having an exhausted helper would not be good for our son. The car keeps both Zeni and our son safe, and the system benefits both parties.”
For the full article, pick up a copy of our January 2012 issue.