WHILE the Covid-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the economy, policy interventions and stimulus packages by the government and regulators such as Bank Negara Malaysia and the Securities Commission have somewhat lessened the pandemic’s scarring effects. However, one policy is hurting the economy: The decision to disallow the entry of foreign domestic workers.
I am a working mother with young children and ageing parents, and the pandemic threw our household into disarray after my previous helper returned to her home country when her contract ended. With the border closed to a replacement, I have had to juggle between my full-time job and the consequences of the situation – eg, being the “technical support” for my children’s online classes, cleaner, caring for elderly people, and now that school has reopened, being a “transporter” due to concerns of enforcing physical distancing rules in school vans.
In addition, the government has announced that the private sector workforce can fully return to offices beginning this month. With the number of Covid-19 cases still high, working mothers like me are confronted with this difficult dilemma: Should we quit our jobs in the absence of any domestic help?
I am not alone in thinking this. Anecdotally, my colleagues and friends have also vented about soaring stress levels caused by this dilemma.
During the pandemic, I tried hiring local domestic helpers but most are unwilling to perform wide- ranging chores such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children or the elderly. They will only accept a narrow job scope (such as cooking and cleaning only) and hence can’t meet the needs of working mothers.
The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the status of women in the workforce. Labour data from the Department of Statistics Malay-sia shows that on a year-on-year basis in February 2021, the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) fell by 0.6% to 55.1%; ironically, male LFPR increased by 0.2% to 81% in the same period.
This data does not include women who may “lean out”, or accept less responsibility, which I have encountered at my workplace. My heart aches to think about the widening gender disparity, with the household caring responsibility disproportionately falling on women.
Will it take longer for Malaysia to achieve high-income nation status, instead of the 2024-2028 timeline predicted by the World Bank? In its report entitled “Aiming High – Navi-gating the Next Stage of Malaysia’s Development”, the World Bank clarifies that the timeline is possible only if we can implement strong reforms by investing in human capital, making policy changes that improve productivity growth in the long run – and increasing female labour force participation.
Malaysia’s female LFPR is already below the 25th percentile of high income nations, and our policy- makers cannot ignore this. The World Bank has recommended improving it by reducing barriers to economic opportunities for women through legal reforms, introducing more economic and societal support for parents, and addressing gender norms and attitudes that perpetuate disparities.
A quick win for now would be to allow the entry of foreign domestic workers again, subject to strict SOP such as swab tests prior to departure from home countries followed by quarantine upon arrival here. We need to balance between the risk of having more women dropping out of the workforce and infection risks that can be easily mitigated with the enforcement of proper SOP. Such procedures have been implemented in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Until this issue is addressed, my friends and I will continue having this dilemma casting a dark cloud over our minds and weighing down our shoulders. I urge the Women, Family and Community Develop-ment Ministry and the rest of the government to arrest the declining female labour force participation rate by allowing foreign helpers back into our homes.
STRESSED WORKING MOTHER , Petaling Jaya