When sweeping is a burden

Many families seem lost in managing the upkeep of their homes as the employment of foreign maids, once a luxury only the wealthy could afford, is getting harder.

FOR many around the world, having a maid at home is a luxury — a service that only the rich can afford.

It is quite the contrary in Malaysia where many households, particularly those in the urban areas are reliant, and some even overly dependent, on maids.

There is a standing joke that when a maid falls sick and is unable to carry out her chores, the whole household is incapacitated.

Average income families in our country are more than happy to dig deep into their pockets to hire maids to take care of daily household chores as the number of working women here rises steadily.

We expect to come home after a long day at work expecting our laundry ironed, folded and put away, our floors swept and mopped, house tidied and cleaned, children bathed and fed, and dinner, heated and waiting to be consumed.

Malaysia is one of Asia’s largest importers of domestic workers or maids and those from Indonesia and the Philippines are a popular choice for Malaysians mainly because of similarities in culture, religion and language. Indonesian maids speak Malay and those from the Philippine are conversant in English.

They are also affordable, in the sense that their average going rate for a monthly salary ranges from a mere RM200 to RM500.

Over the past few years, many households have been thrown into disarray, literally.

Reports of unpaid wages and abuse by some employers of their Indonesian maids have prompted the Indonesian government to temporarily ban Indonesians from taking up jobs as maids here, and re-evaluate their policy on Indonesian nationals coming to Malaysia to work in the domestic sector.

According to official reports, an average of 50 maid abuse cases are reported annually out of the 300,000 Indonesian maids working in the country. Jakarta disagrees, saying the actual number of abuse a year is 1,000 maids.

According to the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies, the number of foreign domestic helpers in Malaysia has dropped to about 220,000 from about 270,000 in 2008 since Indonesia imposed the ban in June 2009.

Malaysia’s maid problem with Indonesia has even made the headlines the world over, including in major US dailies, earlier this year.

The Indonesians have decided to put their foot down and say “enough is enough” and have laid down stringent guidelines for working conditions of Indonesian maids overseas.

An agreement that was to be signed earlier this month between the two countries did not materialise, as both sides still had outstanding issues and terms to resolve namely in regards with fees to be paid to the Indonesian agents and minimum wage for maids.

Indonesia insists that Malaysia guarantee a minimum wage for maids. At the moment, some maids are getting RM200 or less per month.

Indonesia also wants assurance from Malaysia that the maids receive a weekly day off and are allowed to hold their own passports before it lifts the ban.

Hence, many households expecting maids delivered to their doorsteps by local agents are in a frenzy sourcing for alternative domestic help. Some have had to wait up to eight months for the maids to arrive.

Employment agencies have been asked to look to other countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia to keep up with the demands.

After all, we may as well face the fact that Malaysians themselves do not want to fill the gap left by the absence of Indonesian maids because of the low wages and long hours.

Agencies on the other hand claim it is no easy task to source from countries other than Indonesia and the Philippines, and that most Malaysian employers themselves still insist on maids from these two countries as they are able to adapt better because of cultural, religious and language similarities.

Malaysia is not the only country suffering from domestic help withdrawal. Saudi Arabia, too, is affected by the guidelines and is also in the midst of negotiating these requirements with Jakarta.

In a recent press statement in Jeddah, a member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry stated that while talks with Jakarta are still ongoing, plans are also underway to recruit maids from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Mali and Kenya.

Like Malaysia, many Saudi employers reject claims that their maids are overworked and abused.

And like us, they too face the problems with poorly-trained and sickly maids sent, despite having paid large sums of money for them.

There are also those employers (both in Malaysia and Saudi) who run away and simply cheat with the tasks and responsibilities assigned to them because they are lazy.

A friend’s maid acquired from a local agency to care for her elderly mother recently decided to skip town – the maid had somehow managed to open her employer’s drawer, grab her passport, several ringgit and quietly slip out of the house.

Because agencies charge exorbitant fees, and yet there are no guarantees that maids supplied will come through, this friend quit her job to take care of household matters instead of paying for another maid.

Agencies justify the fees that they charge by saying that the services they render save the employer much hassle and trouble of arranging for maids on their own.

Examples of services that agencies list are: new domestic helper application; maid training; re-entry of old domestic helper application; appeal of rejected application; work permit renewal; medical check-up arrangements; passport renewal and air tickets; and transport arrangements.

Payment is usually made in the following instalments to the agencies — deposit, levy and balance. In the event that the employer wants a renewal, another round of payments will be made.

Agency fees in Malaysia average RM2,500 per maid. They will also require additional fees for the Indonesian agent. This usually averages RM1,500.

Then there is advance salary which ranges anywhere from RM200 to RM500 and an advance of six months’ salary is usually required. This is not inclusive of the levy, visa, travel arrangements and insurance that the employer also has to pay.

Just arranging for one maid through an agency can cost a person up to RM7,000 each time, exclusive of their monthly salaries.

“Fly-by-night” or unregistered agents (also known as “contacts”) charge lump sums of between RM5,000 and RM10,000 to “get maids quick”. They are usually sourced from villages “over the border”.

The women will enter the country on a valid passport or social pass, without being registered with the Indonesian consulate and without work permits.

Arrangements for monthly pay, visits back home and other logistics are made “sama diri” i.e. between the contact and employer.

Many households in Sarawak in particular (because we share a physical border with Indonesia) have resorted to this method of getting maids rather than go through registered agencies, as they are assured of faster “delivery” of the maid, without having to pay for additional legal documentation, other than the usual passport.

Also, maids supplied via this avenue are also considerably “cheaper” where monthly salary is concerned. They are usually willing to work for just RM200 a month.

Hopefully, the maid issue between Indonesia and Malaysia will be resolved amicably once and for all, and with a law in place to streamline the employment of foreign maids.

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