Sunday January 11, 2009

Good help is harder to find

Malaysians are grousing that hiring foreign maids these days is more costly and time-consuming, and recruitment agencies say the situation may well continue if certain problems in the industry are not addressed.

WHEN work commitments for Tan S.K. and his wife demanded more of their time, it left them less for domestic matters. He then decided to hire a foreign maid to help with chores around the house and to look after his two young children.

He soon discovered that hiring a foreign maid could be a frustrating process. The time needed before they could get the maid was lengthy, not to mention the initial cost involved.

Feeling at home: Although other countries pay better salaries, Indonesian maids are more comfortable working in Malaysia as there is no language barrier and they are free to practise their religion.

“From the time that I approached a maid agency to actually getting one took six months. I also had to fork out about RM7,500 even before I saw her in person.

“Furthermore, the maid was unsuitable and we requested a replacement — and we had to go through the whole process again. Fortunately, it only took about three months the second time,” Tan says.

This meant it took nine months before he had a live-in maid. With all the hassle he had to go through — not to mention the addition of another person to the household — Tan has decided not to hire another when the current contract expires.

“I don’t know how much a maid is going to cost me in future, and with what I have gone through, I don’t feel it is worth the hassle. I will probably look for part-time maid services then.”

Tan’s experience is one that is becoming increasingly common, but this is a situation that has been developing over the last five years.

According to Malaysian Association Of Foreign Maid Agencies (Papa) president Datuk Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, the most obvious reason is there is a shortage of maids from Indonesia, where Malaysia obtains about 95% of its maids.

“We are not only facing a shortage but an acute shortage! It is very serious, and our business has dropped by about 60%,” he says, adding that the situation worsened considerably over the last two years.

Raja Zulkepley informs that maids from other countries such as Cambodia and the Philippines are allowed, but the popular choice is Indonesia mainly because of lower wages lower compared to other countries.

“Malaysians prefer Indonesians as they are very good. They suit the job demands here, and communication is less of a problem,” he says.

"The salary is in line with the cost of living here"- FIONA LOW

Unpopular choice

Potential employers may find difficulty in obtaining a maid, but those facing bigger pressure are the maid agencies themselves. Describes Agensi Pekerjaan Sentosa SB director K.C. Lau, “The last two years were particularly bad, but from the end of 2004, we could feel it was getting difficult. This could be because Hong Kong and Taiwan opened up to hiring foreign maids.

“I have much difficulty meeting my target – it was a lot easier before. I could easily obtain 20 to 30 maids from each supplier back then, but can only get about four or five now.”

Lam*, from a KL-based agency, says her recruitment has reduced by 40%.

“Three years ago, I could obtain 500 maids a month, now it is less than 300,” she says, adding that many smaller agencies have stopped operating or want to sell their licences.

Agensi Pekerjaan Sri Nadin Sdn Bhd general manager Fiona Low, however, believes there is no shortage of potential maids in Indonesia. “People there know how to compare (between countries) and can choose where they want to go, and this affects the volume coming in.”

Raja Zulkepley believes there are many reasons why the supply of maids from Indonesia is dwindling. One is that the maids themselves, and the recruitment agencies, prefer other countries.

It essentially boils down to a matter of dollars and cents. Other countries pay higher salaries than Malaysia, he says. For example, maids in Taiwan are paid about RM2,400 a month; Hong Kong, RM1,700; Singapore and the Middle East, RM800. In Malaysia they are paid about RM600.

But Low believes that this should not be a factor. “The salary is what we (Malaysians) can offer at the moment, and it is in line with the cost of living here. You cannot compare this with other countries.”

She adds, “Not all maids are looking at the prospect of money — it is to do with their comfort level. Malaysia is still one of the nearest countries, has the same religion, and some may also have relatives here.”

Lam disagrees, insisting that the wage disparity cannot be ignored.

“Wages here are very low compared to other countries. If you were a maid, where would you want to go?”

Furthermore, there is a difference in which party has to pay for getting the maid into the country.

Says Lau, “Under the Malaysian system, both employer and maid have to pay (respective agencies) money, but in the Middle East, the employer pays everything. The maids just go there to work. Most have to take a loan to come to Malaysia, but not so for the Middle East.”

Lam adds that for countries like Taiwan, maids are even willing to pay recruiters for the opportunity to work there.

Question of cost

Another point is that maid suppliers in Indonesia are paid higher agency fees by other countries compared to Malaysia, reveals Lau.

“Other countries are giving higher agency fees, so in order to be competitive, we have to give higher fees too. From the year 2005, it has almost doubled. Last time, we paid about RM3,000 for each maid. Now it is about RM5,000 to RM6,000,” he says.

Adds Low, “This is a free market and (trade) depends on a willing buyer and seller. If somebody has a better offer, you will have to pay more than usual.”

A common complaint among employers is the high cost involved in obtaining a maid from Indonesia. Currently, one has to pay at least RM7,500.

“People always put the blame on local maid agencies, and say we are making excess profits, but this is something beyond our control,” says Raja Zulkepley.

The actual cost is significantly less, Low says. “Actually, employers only pay about RM4,500 to get a maid.”

She explains that in most instances, the maid will not have to be paid for the first six months.

“The additional sum is a loan of sorts that employers give to the maid,” she says, adding that this is usually used to pay for miscellaneous expenses such as travel and training received in Indonesia.

Negative perception

Another factor is that Malaysia is perceived by some as a bad country to work in.

“The reputation of Malaysia is very bad,” says Raja Zulkepley. One reason for this is abuse cases in Malaysia are excessively highlighted in the press.

“There are also similar cases of abuse in Singapore, Taiwan, or the Middle East, for example, but they are not played up as much, so they think that Malaysia is not a good country,” he says.

Lam agrees, saying: “In Malaysia, it will be in the news for a few weeks and then we forget about it. But it is different in Indonesia; it can drag on for months!”

This is compounded by the fact that significant numbers of Indonesians are working illegally in the country.

“Because of this they are not protected and many are not treated fairly by employers — ranging from not getting paid to being abused. When these girls go home, they spread the word,” says Raja Zulkepley.

On the time span involved in getting a maid, Raja Zulkeply says it takes a long time to complete the procedure before maids can work in the country.

“Bringing foreign maids into our country will incur a lot of red tape. Sometimes it can take as long as two to three months,” he explains, adding that in this time, suppliers incur the cost of providing for the maids’ board and lodging.

He gives the example of Singapore, where approvals can be obtained within two or three days. For the Middle East, block visas are provided, with specific individual visas given upon arrival.

Lam points out a loophole where employers can send maids home without informing the agency.

“This can give rise to many problems such as abuse, rape or unpaid salaries. The employer can send them home and agencies or the Government won’t know anything about it. If they have to go through the agency there will be better control.”

Raja Zulkepley believes that Papa can play a significant role in streamlining the industry. “In order to become more efficient, all Malaysian maid agencies must be members of Papa. This was actually approved by the Immigration Department in June 2007, but has never been enforced.”

New source countries

One major benefit, he says, is that as a united front, it can get better rates from the suppliers. He says that Papa has also called for the reduction of the minimum age of incoming Indonesian maids from 21 to 18 in addition to calling for new source countries — China in particular.

But until then, local maid agencies have to work within existing constraints.

Says Lau, “Fortunately, our profits are about the same, but capital investment has gone up considerably. We could make one Ringgit for every two spent before, but now we need four! And who wants to raise their prices? This is bad for business! If we keep it low, everyone can afford a maid.”

Low believes the difficulty in obtaining maids will remain as the status quo.

“It is already like this. We hope that people will understand the difficulties and be more tolerant.”

Concludes Lam, “The cost of recruiting maids rose faster than the price of petrol! Many things in the industry are out of our control, and keep in mind that we are dealing with humans, not products. This line of work is very difficult, and I am tired and find it very hard to continue. We may have been able to make good money last time, but not any more.”

* Name has been changed.

Related story:
Why they prefer Malaysia


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