With the Indonesian domestic worker issue blowing' up and another hot potato in the form of a national minimum wage to deal with, there is hardly a moment when Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam is alone.
THE past week has seen the Human Resources Minister shuttling between his Putrajaya office and a satellite office in Pusat Bandar Damansara to Parliament. The pace was gruelling, as there was also the Private Sector Retirement Age Bill to finalise.
At the Damansara office earlier this week, officials awaited their turn to be called in as Dr Subramaniam worked the telephone.
One of them was Labour Department director-general Datuk Sheikh Yahya Sheikh Mohamed who was there to explain about the “one maid, one task” pre-condition reportedly imposed last week during a joint taskforce meeting in Jakarta for Indonesian maids to be sent here.
“Matters are weighing heavily on the minister but he is on top of things. I did not sense any trepidation,'' said a labour law expert of his meeting with Dr Subramaniam, the two-term Segamat MP who was promoted to the Cabinet in 2008 from his position as parliamentary secretary.
There is hardly a day when Dr Subramaniam, a former Penang Free School top student who studied medicine at the National University of Singapore, is not hounded by people Cabinet colleagues included on the maid issue.
There are those who blame the ministry for being too lax with Indonesia. Others say the minister himself has not been steadfast in resolving the problem since the republic imposed a moratorium on the sending of domestic workers to Malaysia in 2009.
Dr Subramaniam is currently on a media blitz to explain the rationale for the national minimum wage which is to be announced soon. And then there is the media onslaught on the maid issue to be answered to.
Still, Dr Subramaniam, a dermatologist by profession, maintains an unfailingly fresh appearance.
“During my constituency rounds, I try to help when I come across someone having a rash or skin disorder. I don't mind being asked about skin problems for a change,'' the eldest son of a former assistant registrar of trade unions says in jest.
He speaks to Sunday Star on topical issues concerning his ministry with emphasis on the Indonesian maid dilemma.
Q: The Indonesian domestic workers issue has been a nightmare for us. Are you not running out of patience?
A: I'm questioned about this issue by the media almost every other day. The (latest) problem occurred after the Indonesian DG spoke to the press in Jakarta. And an officer here (at the Indonesian Embassy) quoted her without knowing the truth. We have already complained about this officer to Wisma Putra previously. He is not supposed to issue policy statements. Who is he to tell his Government to impose a moratorium (on sending maids to Malaysia)? If he has anything to say, he should use the proper channels. The allegations against a high-ranking official of maid abuse turned out to be nothing. It was just a case of the maid wanting more money.
>Are you confronted on the maid issue wherever you go?
Yes, there is this obsession about maids. Even our leaders and ministers ask me about it. Because Malaysians have got used to this. Our whole style of working and living has been based on the fact that these things are there. So a lot of them are finding it hard in the present situation. Even journalists repeatedly ask me about this every day. And in no other country is the PM asked about maids.
> But do you agree that the Indonesian domestic worker issue has not been well managed by your ministry?
We signed the MOU with Indonesia in good faith. We agreed with them that we needed to put in place a mechanism to protect their workers. They asked for some very difficult conditions and we agreed, although Malaysian employers were not very happy such as the passports being kept by the maids and a weekly day off. But we agreed because that is what the international standard is.
But the issue continued to be very sensitive in Indonesia due to the pressure groups and the Government delayed the implementation of the MoU. So in Bali last November, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib and President Susilo reaffirmed their commitment to the MoU. The maids were supposed to undergo training and come in January and it is already March now.
In the meantime, we set up a joint taskforce to resolve outstanding issues that might arise. It was during one of the meetings in Jakarta last week that new conditions, such as additional payments for each task performed, purportedly shot out of the blue. We were upset.
>Why was there a time lapse before Datuk Sheikh Yahya clarified that no new conditions like the “one maid one task” and “RM700 for one task” were adopted at the taskforce meeting he attended in Jakarta?
Our team came back (from Jakarta) on Sunday and I asked them about it. They said there was no such thing. All we agreed to was a salary of RM600 to RM700 to be decided between the employer and employee, and that all aspects of the MoU will be adhered to. I had denied that there were new conditions on Friday itself. On Saturday, the PM repeated our stand. Malaysia has been consistent and we go by what was agreed to in the MoU.
>But thousands of families here have been waiting for long and think that your ministry should shoulder part of the blame for the fiasco. What do you say to them?
This is a bilateral issue and Malaysians must realise that all decisions have to be mutually acceptable. The subsequent statements that have been made by their officers at the various levels are probably a response to the local situation there. It is not possible for us to respond to every statement that they make. Unfortunately, Indonesia's structure being what it is, these kinds of things do happen. Each time, there is one case of abuse here, there is over-reaction in Indonesia. This is the delicate aspect which we have to manage. The Malaysian public just wants maids to be sent here on our terms. We are maintaining our patience because we know there is a huge amount of Malaysians who have this need (for maids) and want this issue resolved. Otherwise, we can just close the book.
>According to feedback from agents here, it is the lower agency fees of RM4,511 which is the main stumbling block. That Indonesian agents want higher payment?
That's possible. If that is the issue, then they should raise it with us. It was the Indonesian negotiators who suggested that fee and we agreed. So if they have got some reason to say that costs have gone up, then they should come to us.
The fee structure is something that we have seen changing with time. We have tried to cap it at a certain level but I cannot predict what the figure will be six months or one year from now. The most important thing is to start the process so that things can be taken care of by normal market forces. Otherwise the speculative process will take over. This is why you hear that some people had to fork out up to RM10,000 in agency fees!
>Are you saying that the RM4,511 fee agreed to in the MoU is still open to negotiation?
That is the figure we agreed and that is the figure at which they (Indonesian agencies) should start sending maids. If they face problems in terms of costs, then they should bring it up to the joint taskforce through their Government. That is why the joint taskforce is there to deal with teething issues which might arise. But they should not use that (RM4,511 fee) as the reason for not starting the process. Start sending the maids first, then the other things like wages will fall into place.
Wages are very dependent on the relationship between the employer and employee. There are employers who pay much more to their maids and we want their relationship to determine those factors. That is why we want wages to be determined by market factors. I'm sure that the maids will get a reasonable remuneration here. When we first discussed (the wage issue), we were thinking of between RM600 and RM700 but Indonesia is now saying RM700. But that is not a big issue to us.
> So are the 106 Indonesian maids coming after all? We hear conflicting reports.
Well, according to the statement by the minister counsellor (at the Indonesian Embassy) here, the first batch will arrive by April. I am just quoting him, but this has changed many times. I have not got any latest communication from our side.
> What are the other safeguards in place, in terms of sourcing domestic workers from other countries?
We allow domestic workers from the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, even from Pakistan and Nepal. But people don't seem to take from these countries. The bulk, between 90% and 95%, is from Indonesia. That's where our problem starts as it involves large strata of our society. The next largest source is Cambodia which has about 30,000 maids here, and then the Philippines with about 15,000. (Cambodia froze the sending of maids to Malaysia last year).
On minimum wage
>The cost of living varies greatly in KL, Kota Kinabalu and Kota Baru but the national minimum wage will be across-the-board?
True, but we left that to technical committees, one at the local level and another made up of consultants from the World Bank to vet through. We know there are variables in cost of living. And the Act which we have passed gives the power to the National Wages Consultative Council to decide whether to impose regional, national rates or even sectoral rates.
After taking all factors into consideration, the council decided for many reasons to have one rate for the peninsular and another for Sabah and Sarawak. There are those who argued that workers in the Klang Valley should get a higher wage than those in Terengganu. But the council felt that if we go into too many rates, there will be difficulty in implementing and enforcing it. And there might be mobility of workers from low to high wage areas. We are only starting, so we wanted to keep things as simple as possible so that we can learn from this process and finetune things as time passes. After all, we are talking about mininum not maximum wage. The (respective) areas can still determine a higher wage above the minimum wage according to the standards of living there.
>Was it the spiralling cost of living, or pressure from unions, which was the main consideration for the Government in agreeing to set a minimum wage?
There were a number of factors the cost of living, poverty line index, rate of unemployment, inflation and median or average wage. The median wage is a very important indicator because it tells us what the employers are paying or capable of paying at the present time. We found a very big discrepancy in median wages between the peninsular and Sabah. We take median wage as the capacity to pay and this has been one of the guides in determining what the rates are.
>The Employment Act now covers those earning RM1,500 and below. Was this figure taken into account in determining the minimum wage?
That figure is for coverage of the aspects of employment law, meaning all the protection as exemplified by the Act. We are increasing that figure to RM2,000. The Act was created to protect workers in the lower rung from being exploited. It made an assumption that those in the higher rungs have got other systems to protect themselves. We are increasing the figure to RM2,000, because wages have increased overall. Even at the rate of RM2,000, we are still only covering the lower quarter of the working population which needs protection. These are groups of workers who probably won't have contracts of employment and might not be sophisticated enough to know their rights and fight for it.
>The MEF was very much against the national minimum wage at the start. Others asked that a minimum wage be sectoral.
Well they (MEF) are also a part of the council. It is important to know that the decision on the minimum wage was not that of the Government's. It was determined by the council and we never got involved at all. The council is headed by former Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Tan Sri Steve Shim and there are an equal number of worker, employer and independent representatives. And we also have an equal number of representatives from the Government, such as from the EPU, Treasury and Miti. Basically, the decisions of the council are actually deliberations between the representatives of the workers and employers. We want this as the system and eventually we want the council to be stronger. Being new, the Government gave a lot of support and it is my hope that as time goes by, it will become an independent council.
>The national minimum wage and Private Sector Retirement Age Bill involves the private sector. Why is the Government taking the lead?
Although we are taking the lead, the decisions are tripartite where the stakeholders are equally involved in the decision-making process. That is the culture which we want to maintain. The changes that we are bringing in will definitely assist in strengthening the private sector as it continues to be the engine of growth. Because we need strong institutions and wage is an important component of it.
Although there are groups which asked why should there ever be a minimum wage, the reason why we went ahead was because despite allowing market forces to determine wages, there was still a substantial number, 33% of the workforce, earning less than a RM700 salary. And we never saw those wages moving at all. It created a very poor working class at that level and there was a need for improving it while at the same time ensuring that it would not have any destabilising effect on the economy. Whatever figure to be announced will be a balance between both.
> With a minimum wage set to be implemented, foreign countries negotiating terms for their workers can also set minimum wages for their workers?
Certainly. We have spoken to some of the foreign (representatives). Their concern is that costs will go up but they all come from countries which have been used to it. I tell them that they are coming from an environment in which they are completely aware of this kind of thing (minimum wage). Once we have announced it in Malaysia, it will become part of their business culture here.
The initial teething problems will be there and that's why we are not going to be aggressive at the start. We are trying to be accomodative as possible to allow enough flexibility so that people can implement it. The important thing is that we are introducing a new concept on a wage mechanism in Malaysia which will be reviewed by the council every two years.
So as time goes by, it will become an important institution because businesses will know that every two years, there will be a change in wage structure and they will have to incorporate that into their business planning and future programme.
This is not something alien to businesses because this is done in most parts of the world. It is just that we didn't do it in Malaysia and it seems to be something new. As it becomes a practice, people will get used to it here.
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