Witness #26 | Adelina Lisao (Deceased)
(Testimony by Glorene Das, Executive Director of Tenaganita)
Every single time I watch this video (on domestic workers), it is a reminder that domestic workers throughout the world continue to be treated worse than slaves, simply because they are unrecognised.
Adelina Lisao’s case captured the attention of many across the world when she passed away on 11 February 2018 due to organ failure as a result of neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and forced labour at the hands of her employer in a private home for two years.
The passport was kept by the employer from the beginning of her employment. She never saw her passport. Her work permit was also not renewed by the employer, which led her to become undocumented by the system. Subsequently, after her death, the employer’s daughter was charged under section 56(1) of the Immigration Act 1959/63, for employing Adelina without valid legal documents.
From our case file, it is documented that one of the neighbours had sent an email seeking assistance to help Adelina; the email was sent to our sister organisation, namely Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) in Penang, sometime in February 2018. Then WCC sent that email requesting for help to Tenaganita. Upon receiving the email, the Tenaganita Team took a drive to the house (the address had been provided) but we could not see anyone from outside. We continued to monitor the place, but no one came out of the house, so we left. We then reported the matter to the police, but since it was not an official police report, they did not proceed. Our report was seen as hearsay without evidence. It was a few weeks later when Bukit Mertajam Member of Parliament (MP) Steven Sim’s staff called us for help, that we realised it was the same house, and the same help was being requested.
The case documentation stated that Adelina was instructed by the employer to wash the drains and toilets using highly toxic chemical detergent. However, the detergent got on her hands and legs while she was washing (apparently an accident), which led to her having wounds on her hands and legs, which were never given medical care by the employer. When the wounds started oozing pus, the employer sent her to sleep outside the house next to their pet dog, a Rottweiler, as seen in the pictures given to the press by MP Steven Sim and his staff members.
MP Steven Sim called our Penang Team thereafter, to see how we could intervene. He also mentioned that he had called the police to rescue her. Adelina was rescued, then brought to the police station together with the employer, for statements. When Tenaganita arrived at the police station, we found Adelina to be so weak. She needed immediate treatment, so we pressured the police to bring her to the hospital for treatment before taking her statement. Then she was taken to the hospital immediately.
In a brief conversation with the doctors attending to Adelina that night, we were informed that she could be discharged the next day, so it would be good to make the necessary preparations in our shelter in Penang to care for her. In that same conversation, we were also told that this was not an accident as claimed by the employer, as wounds were also found on her thighs and perineal region of her body.
When Adelina was admitted to hospital, our Penang Team was there to see and speak with her. They even gave her some food, which she was so afraid to take as the employer was watching. However, it was evident that she was on borrowed time, as she slipped into unconsciousness and passed away.
Below are the observations of my team members in Penang:
(1) Her absolute fear of the two people who brought her to the police station. She would not accept food or drink without their permission.
(2) Her shocking physical state. We were so concerned that she might lose a foot, but did not imagine she would lose her life.
(3) At the police station, the police were kind and tried to question her for a short while but it was obvious it was not the time to question her, as she needed medical attention.
(4) Despite the employer’s daughter saying Adelina had eaten a good meal when she was admitted to hospital, she was hungry and one of my team members (Sally Alexander) fed her because of her condition.
(5) When she sat on the edge of the bed, fluid from her injuries dripped on the floor, which required the nurses to mop up the floor.
On the next day, Sunday morning, she was in a lot of discomfort. When my team member Sally Alexander returned from a short break, Adelina was unresponsive. Despite the medical team trying to resuscitate her, she never regained consciousness and died shortly after while waiting for a bed in the Intensive Care Unit. The autopsy report showed that Adelina had a swollen face, dog-bite marks and acid burns. She was 21 years old when she died.
I reiterate the words of Adelina’s mum to us: “Dia mati bukan akibat penyakitnya tetapi kerana dia didera.” (“She did not die because of her sickness, but because she was tortured”). The world saw these images of Adelina.
A person is dead and her blood is on all our hands. Allowing perpetrators such as the employer to walk free makes us all complicit in the death of Adelina, and many others who shared the same fate.
Adelina’s life is the sad reality of thousands more domestic workers, who are susceptible to all forms of exploitation. It is high time that we make an effort to increase protection for all domestic workers.
I strongly believe that the only efficient way to eliminate serious abuse and exploitation towards any person is for perpetrators to be prosecuted and jailed for lengthy periods of time. We must put an end to the climate of impunity afforded to employers or any perpetrators, who abuse, cheat, severely harm, and even carry out acts that lead to the deaths of, domestic workers, with little consequence to them.
It is clear to me that the main reason the abuse of domestic workers is so widespread is the lack of legal protection: the Employment Act 1955, which supposedly protects the rights of domestic workers, does not even recognise them as workers, but instead defines them as servants.
As a result, many employers feel that they can subject their domestic workers to sustained abuse and torture with impunity, which sometimes ends tragically — as in the case of Adelina, and many others before her.
On the other hand, those who seek to free themselves from abusive and exploitative work by running away, are criminalised or prosecuted under the Immigration Act 1959/63 because they automatically become undocumented. From our experiences of such cases, it becomes clear that the authorities and enforcement agencies, including the Judiciary, continue to punish the victim, as the onus of proof of being legal is on the victim, while the controls are with the employer or the agent.
For many years, I have stated over and over again that it is only when rights of workers are protected through laws, and when domestic workers are recognised as workers, will employers, agents and Malaysians as a whole ensure respect and dignity for domestic workers. The statutes and the legal process cannot, and must not, exclude domestic workers. This form of persistent and intentional discrimination against women from the more marginalised groups, speaks volumes of how we fail to respect persons and ensure their dignity. Our Government has acceded to CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) but has not lived up to our commitment and accountability.
This is why we applauded when the former Human Resources Minister, M. Kulasegaran, mentioned that the Ministry is proposing a Domestic Workers Act. This new legislation is necessary and very important, because of the unique nature of domestic work and the underlying need for rights protection based on violations we have already seen. Tenaganita and the Domestic Workers Coalition have been working for several years in a bottom-up process involving domestic workers, in drafting the bill. We have handed over the draft bill to the relevant departments and ministries. We also hope for a process by the Ministry in the development of Domestic Workers Act that is PARTICIPATORY and TRANSPARENT in consultation with civil society organisations (CSOs), individuals, concerned groups, and especially domestic workers.
We are aware that there are ongoing discussions on the proposals to the Employment Act 1955 pertaining to Domestic Workers, but these are just interim measures.
In the course of our work along with other organisations, we often learn that the worker is never given a rest day off per week, and she faces multiple other violations such as the withholding of her passport, and physical, psychological and sexual abuse, to name a few.
Another reason is the lack of inspections. This is sometimes because of the legal and practical challenges of inspecting private homes, which may not be considered workplaces in some countries. As a result, victims often have limited opportunities to complain.
Because these cases become increasingly complex, having one law that covers the entirety of domestic work and potential issues that may arise in this line of employment is needed, to speed up the legislation process and increase domestic workers’ access to justice.
We definitely want significant changes, and therefore hope the Government and its Ministries take cognisance of this. We call for a separate law in which domestic work is recognised as work; and the women are identified as workers, and not as servants.
If anything constructive emerges from Adelina’s tragedy, it is a plea for stronger protective regulation and legislation in Malaysia, and better monitoring of the welfare of domestic workers.
On 18 April 2019, Adelina’s employer, S. Ambika, walked free. The High Court granted her a full acquittal. This decision was shocking, as it sent out a very worrying message to all perpetrators that they can walk away with impunity after severely abusing domestic workers, even to the point of death. These decisions by the Malaysian Judiciary also put migrant workers at a great disadvantage.
We received information that the employer was acquitted after her lawyer cited section 254(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code, and urged the court to take into account the employer’s age and deteriorating health. The High Court Judge acquitted her, stating, “The accused is over 60 years old and has several health issues, and the court has given priority to that matter" — despite the Deputy Public Prosecutor’s request for a discharge not amounting to acquittal.
Right after that, Tenaganita launched a petition online, with rallies of protest and campaigns with regional partners in the different countries, pressuring both Indonesian and Malaysian Governments to appeal the case, to continue seeking justice for Adelina.
The petition was basically addressed to the Attorney General (AG), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Parliamentary Affairs) Datuk Liew Vui Keong, and Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran, demanding a full explanation on all the decisions made, and what transpired during the court proceedings that led to the acquittal of S. Ambika.
We continued to campaign, stating that we would no longer accept torture and violence in our homes and in our neighbourhoods, could not accept the failure of our justice system, and could not accept the inaction by our elected officials. We want comprehensive action to stop the violence against domestic workers in Malaysia.
Then the decision was appealed but, a year later, the bench in the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision put forth by the High Court, claiming that the decision was not erroneous. This decision was a regressive step for the Malaysian justice system — it conveyed a severely harmful message condoning heinous acts of abuse and exploitation. The climate of impunity afforded to those who are undeserving, continues.
We were then informed that the Attorney General’s Chambers filed an appeal against the decision by the Court of Appeal at the highest court — that is the FEDERAL COURT — and the decision is likely to be out in December 2021.
Videos on YouTube regarding the case of Adelina Lisao:
(1) 10 Fakta Kematian TKW Adelina di Malaysia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgi2aC0PPcc