I cleaned the house, the kitchen, washed the floor, ironed, vacuumed, and cleaned the car. I worked from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day. I never had a break; I was just stealing time to get a break. I was paid just one time, 200 ringgit [U.S. $52.63]. I just ate bread, there was no rice [for me]. I was hungry. I slept in the kitchen on a mat. I was not allowed outside of the house.
That is how Nyatun Wulandari described the working conditions she encountered as a domestic worker in Malaysia when she was just 23 years old. Originally from Lombok, Indonesia, Nyatun was one of many women to migrate to Malaysia in search of a better life only to be exploited by the country’s informal domestic worker sector. Though what she went through took place over a decade ago, the exploitation of Malaysia’s domestic workers continues to this day.
Raised by women like Nyatun, social entrepreneur Zenna Law considers the domestic workers who raised her as family. Her personal observations on their exploitation are what led her to found Pinkcollar Employment Agency—a recruitment agency focusing on ethical sourcing and hiring practices. Together with her co-founder Elaine Sim and newest team member, Sophia Aliza, Pinkcollar helps protect over 250,000 migrant domestic workers registered in Malaysia from abuse and exploitative working and living conditions.
Making a Business Case for Ethical Recruiting
Founding Pinkcollar Employment Agency did not happen overnight. Zenna recalls how one of the biggest challenges was first understanding the scope of the problem before seeking a solution. “Initially, we decided to use tech to connect employers with workers and cut [out] middlemen agencies that exploit both sides, but the idea didn’t work because of strong government restrictions on direct hiring and the imbalanced power dynamic that plays out between workers and employers.”
Pinkcollar then explored the possibility of becoming an auditor to help existing agencies recruit ethically and push forward the notion that ethical recruiting makes business sense. Due to resistance from existing agencies, this didn’t work either. It was only then that Pinkcollar decided to lead by example and form an ethical recruitment agency.
They chalked out a plan. First, they connected with potential partners and agencies across the Philippines and Hong Kong and then began working with a training center certified by the Philippine government, with a curriculum that is lauded as the gold standard by the International Labor Organization.
Pinkcollar takes care of its workers by ensuring placements with employers who treat them well and make the partner training center available for them to build capacity in crucial hard and soft skills that prepare them for future migration and employment.
Because Malaysian employers are also often scammed by illegal agents, Pinkcollar also works on helping employers, thereby remaining active on both sides of the recruitment process.
“There have been instances where employers hire workers who never arrive or end up with untrained workers who are misinformed or unprepared about the job requirements,” Sophia says. “Sometimes, this results in premature contract termination. Mismanaged workers’ expectations are one of the main reasons why workers ‘run away’; Pinkcollar Agency openly engages and manages expectations on both sides, from placement matching to job offer, to minimize this risk. We also conduct worker screening and vet out the bottom 30% of candidates who apply with us, leading to a pool of committed workers that we train and match to employers providing good working conditions.”
Using YSEALI Seeds to Grow
It sounded great on paper, but almost immediately after founding Pinkcollar Agency—Zenna, Elaine and Sophia faced the challenge of finding resources to implement their ideas. As they tried to find solutions to this, they learned about the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Seeds for the Future small grants competition, a US State Department program that provides funding to promising young leaders in the ASEAN region carrying out projects to uplift their communities.
Zenna, Elaine, and Sophia applied for the program and were successful in receiving the grant to implement the project over the course of nine months. Their application was just one of the 21 selected out of a pool of over 400 applications for the 2019 cohort.
The grant is a way to expand their community efforts and reach their goals. Zenna recalls having so many ideas but not being able to execute them due to lack of resources. “Ever since this grant, we have conducted interviews and focus groups with workers and employers to understand their previous employment relationships and challenges to investigate how we can develop stronger trust between the two sides.”
The grant has also enabled Pinkcollar to work on workers’ and employers’ handbooks, which are given to employers before the workers begin working with them and are a part of the orientation that workers receive when they come to Malaysia. “The aim of these tools is to help both workers and employers understand their rights, responsibilities, and guide them through better management frameworks and ethical practices.”
Varying in nature and content, the employer’s handbooks are tailored towards various management techniques that aim to increase productivity and build trust—as well as help workers understand their rights and get support if they need it. Their handbooks have instructions with laws applicable to them and important numbers to call.
Going from Starting Up to Starting a Multi-Pronged Approach
The handbooks are just the beginning of the revolution that the Pinkcollar team hopes to spark. The YSEALI Seeds grant has enabled them to tailor and co-develop a training in Manila specifically for Malaysian-bound workers, which educates them on professionalism and their rights to stand against exploitation in the workplace.
Though this is just one prong of their strategy, Pinkcollar is looking at expanding their efforts and reaching the corporate sector in Malaysia. Sophia mentions that a lot of members of corporations hire domestic workers too and seek guidance.
“After receiving the grant, we hosted inaugural workshops and secured two knowledge sessions with corporations filled with staff who hire domestic workers to coach them on ethical hiring practices, encourage and teach them how to hire fairly and extend our community efforts beyond the employers we serve as part of our business model. We hope to replicate the same level of impact and success in Malaysia that our mentors at the Fair Employment Foundation have had with spreading the pledge of fair hiring and treatment of migrant domestic workers across Hong Kong-based corporations.”
Thanks to YSEALI, Pinkcollar is able to stay true to its initial intentions—formalizing the domestic worker sector, becoming a role model for recruitment agencies, training workers about their rights, and coaching employers to hire and manage workers ethically.
By growing their efforts into an ethical recruitment movement across Malaysia, Pinkcollar is not just supporting migrant domestic workers in Malaysia—but also their family members and dependents back in their home countries. This makes their impact across ASEAN far-reaching and vast in ways that cannot fully be measured in numbers.
If you are you passionate about the future of ASEAN and have an idea to make a positive change in your community, apply to the 2020 Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative’s (YSEALI) Seeds for the Future grants competition to turn your ideas into action.
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