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A Cry for More (Domestic) Help in Malaysia

This article in The New York Times, written by Liz Gooch was published on February 23, 2011.
A Cry for More (Domestic) Help in Malaysia

Saeed Khan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images (from The New York Times)

"You walk in the door and the clothes have been washed and ironed, the floors mopped and the toilets cleaned. And dinner is on the table.

Thousands of Malaysian households have been thrown into domestic chaos by a shortage of maids since Indonesia barred its citizens from taking new jobs as maids in the country in 2009.

For most people, the luxury of a live-in maid is a fantasy. In Malaysia, however, even though the per capita income amounts to just 25,000 ringgit, or $8,100, a year, maids have been ubiquitous in middle-class households, thanks in large part to a low-paid Indonesian labor pool.

But 19 months ago, following horrific reports of beatings, rapes and other abuse of maids by Malaysian employers, Indonesia barred its citizens from taking new jobs as domestic workers here. Since then, help has been in short supply. And Malaysians are not happy.

“Now I have to do it all by myself,” complained Ivy Lim, a mother of two who has been looking for a new domestic helper for the past three months.

After her last maid left, Ms. Lim said, she had to give up her full-time nursing job so she could do the household chores and be at home when her children returned from school. She is one of about 35,000 Malaysians who are on waiting lists for domestic helpers, according to recruitment agencies that arrange for maids to come to Malaysia, a country of 28 million that is heavily dependent on cheap foreign labor.

The number of foreign domestic helpers in Malaysia has dropped from about 270,000 in 2008 to about 220,000 since Indonesia imposed the ban in June 2009, according to the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies. Few maids from other countries have been coming in to replace the Indonesians who returned home after their visas expired, said Jeffrey Foo, the association’s deputy president. And not many Malaysians are willing to fill the gap, because of the long hours and low wages.

As the Indonesian and Malaysian governments negotiate over wages and working conditions for maids, the collective hand-wringing has intensified, with one local newspaper recently describing how some parents were being forced to forgo “quality time with their children on weekends to do housework.”

“This is a stressful time for Malaysians,” Mr. Foo said.

“I think the impact will be a lot of quarrels, because a lot of men will be asked to do the work, the children will be asked to help,” he said. “A lot of people will be in a desperate situation. Maybe they will look for illegal maids, or get their mother or mother-in-law to help.”

Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, director of the Haz Employment Agency, one of the largest suppliers of foreign maids in Kuala Lumpur, and a former president of the Association of Foreign Maid Agencies, said he now told his clients that they might have to wait as long as eight months before he could find them a domestic helper.

“Sometimes they get angry,” he said. “Of course they are frustrated. They say it’s too long.”

The agencies say they have tried everything they can think of to find more maids — like recruiting in other countries, like Cambodia, and trying to persuade the Malaysian government to lower the minimum age requirement for foreign maids from 21 to 18 — to no avail.

Although more Cambodians have arrived since Indonesia imposed the ban, Mr. Foo said there were not enough to overcome the shortage. And in any case, many Malaysians prefer Indonesians because of similarities of language, religion and culture.

He said while there were also some maids from the Philippines, their government had stipulated that they be paid about 1,200 ringgit a month, more than most Malaysians are willing to pay. Indonesians typically are paid 500 to 600 ringgit.

Ms. Lim, the nurse, said she would not be able to return to work until she found a new live-in helper who could care for her children after school.

Mr. Raja Zulkepley has heard about other parents taking unpaid leave to care for their children. “I think it will impact on the country’s productivity,” he said.

Others, however, are more concerned about the effect of the shortage on would-be maids.

For many young Indonesian women, working in Malaysia is an opportunity to earn money to send home to their own families. Migrant worker support groups are concerned that the Indonesian ban might prompt more women to enter the country illegally, or become victims of trafficking.

Aegile Fernandez, consultant manager of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Unit at Tenaganita, a nongovernmental organization, said some Cambodian girls as young as 14 had turned up at the organization’s shelters in Kuala Lumpur after running away from their employers because of abuse or unpaid wages.

Some said they had lied about their age so that they could work in Malaysia, she said.

Ms. Fernandez said many domestic helpers worked long hours, starting as early as 4.30 a.m. Many complain that they do not receive a weekly day off and that their employers often withhold their wages and take away their passports, she said.

Ms. Fernandez said Malaysians should change their attitudes toward domestic helpers. “We have come to the stage where Malaysians need to learn there’s only a certain amount a domestic worker should have to do,” she said.

As complaints about the shortage grow louder, negotiations between the Indonesian and Malaysian governments continue. Indonesia wants Malaysia to guarantee a minimum wage for domestic helpers, and to ensure that domestic workers receive the weekly day off currently granted to workers outside the home. And it is asking for better enforcement of the law allowing them to hold onto their passports, before it lifts the ban.

Meanwhile, some Malaysians who still enjoy the privilege of being free from domestic chores recognize that they are the fortunate ones. Rozumah Baharudin and her husband have employed an Indonesian maid for the past five years to take care of tasks like vacuuming, washing clothes and preparing meals.

Ms. Rozumah, a professor of family ecology at the department of human development and family studies at University Putra Malaysia who has researched the effect of maids on family life, said the number of Malaysians employing domestic helpers had increased in recent years as more women joined the workforce. She appreciates that she is lucky to be able to come home from work without having to think about household chores.

“I can concentrate on my job,” she said. “All is taken care of.”"



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