A vacuum cleaner ad has driven a wedge between Indonesia and Malaysia

Indonesian women sit outside a shelter for abused domestic workers in Kuala Lumpur.
Indonesian women sit outside a shelter for abused domestic workers in Kuala Lumpur.
Image: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
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Malaysia doesn’t have a good reputation for how it treats its domestic workers, better known as maids or “helpers.” The Indonesian government has formally complained over an ad for a Malaysia vacuum cleaner ad that calls on customers to “fire your Indonesian maid,” in a dig at country’s 400,000 domestic workers, who are mostly from Indonesia.

The ad has been taken down online, but photos of it are still circulating social media across Southeast Asia, a region that is home to about half of the world’s migrant domestic workers. They are mostly women who are often subject to discriminatory labor laws and abuse by their employers.

“The ad by the private company Robovac is utterly insensitive and demeaning to the people of Indonesia,” Indonesia’s embassy in Malaysia said in a statement. The country’s vice president Jusuf Kalla called the ad a “form of harassment” and suggested a renewed moratorium on Indonesian domestic workers being allowed to go to Malaysia; an earlier ban was in place between 2009 and 2011 after reports of abuses. Most recently, a Malaysian couple was sentenced to hanging for starving their Indonesian maid to death.

Domestic workers are increasingly becoming the focus of diplomatic spats in the region, as poorer countries grow wealthier and seek to bring workers back home. Indonesia has pledged to stop sending its domestic workers abroad by 2017, though some critics say the measure is unlikely to be effective. Cambodia has also restricted domestic workers from going to Malaysia, and the Philippines said it will stop letting its domestic workers go to Singapore.

The timing is awkward for Indonesian president Joko Widodo, who this week is scheduled to make his first trip to Malaysia since taking office.

So far Robovac, the Malaysia-based vacuum cleaner company, hasn’t responded to the controversy. Its website is unaccessible and earlier in the week it was hacked to display a message: “Be nice to our sisters…Your advertisement is not very funny at all.”