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Malaysians Are Left Holding the Mop After Indonesia Alters Its Worker Policy

This article was published in the New York Times on February 27, 2011.
Malaysians Are Left Holding the Mop After Indonesia Alters Its Worker Policy

New York Times - Saeed Khan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


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.

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

But 19 months ago, after 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 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 to about 220,000 from about 270,000 in 2008 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, 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.

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 for 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 — recruiting in other countries, like Cambodia, and trying to persuade the Malaysian government to lower the minimum age requirement for foreign maids to 18 from 21 — 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 many Malaysians prefer Indonesians because of similarities of language, religion and culture.

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

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

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 so they cannot return home or seek other employers, 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; the typical monthly pay for Indonesians has been 500 to 600 ringgit, or less than $200. It wants 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 have domestic help recognize that they are the fortunate ones. Rozumah Baharudin and her husband have employed an Indonesian maid for five years for 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 work force. She acknowledges 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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