By Joan Lau and Lydia Koh
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 5 — Speak to any middle-class family and other than the shrinking value of the ringgit, chances are they will complain about how it seems harder and harder to get a maid these days.
First-time parents Khalid Ismail and his wife Noreen are a typical example. “We tried to get a maid but the agency told us to be patient... it’s not like we had a choice, Indonesia has not been sending us maids,” said Noreen, 34, who works as a lecturer in a local university.
Khalid, also a lecturer, said they felt pretty desperate at one point as the baby was coming and they still had not secured a maid. “In the end, Noreen’s parents agreed to help us take care of the baby,” he said.
With a combined take-home pay of RM5,600, they can well afford the RM650 a month it costs for an Indonesian maid but there simply aren’t any to be had. At least not through legal channels.
It speaks volumes about the maid situation in Malaysia when the impending arrival of 25 — yes, 25 — maids from Indonesia made it to the news last weekend.
When these 25 maids finally land in Malaysia, it would drive the number of Indonesian embassy-approved maids in the country to a grand total of 42. Compare that to the fact that about 300,000 Indonesian women worked here as maids before Indonesia stopped sending them over some three years ago.
The embargo on maids in 2009 followed numerous complaints of abuse by employers. Just last December, it was decided that Indonesian women would be allowed to work in Malaysia once more as domestic helpers but their arrival has been delayed for months.
So what is the real problem here? Is the Indonesian government the one preventing the women from coming or could it be something even more startling... the women preferring another country over Malaysia?
With the Indonesian economy surging forward — just last year, its foreign direct investment (FDI) reached a record US$19.3 billion (RM60.2 billion) and exports grew by 29 per cent — there are simply more jobs available within the country as well.
Then there is simply the matter of higher wages in other countries. Compare the S$450 (RM1,126) which is the minimum they get in Singapore and the HK$3,740 (RM1,500) minimum allowable wage they get in Hong Kong to the RM650 minimum they will be paid in Malaysia, and you can see why they would rather work in those countries.
Add to that the fact they get mandatory days off in Singapore and Hong Kong whereas mandatory days off is still a point of contention here as far as domestic helpers go.
“It’s a combination of both factors. Firstly, the Indonesian economy is resilient even in this global economic crisis. The country has maintained a six per cent GDP growth, opening up more job opportunities for Indonesians,” said Suhaimi Illias, chief economist at Malayan Banking Berhad,
“There is also foreign investment in the country so it is more attractive for Indonesians to get jobs within the country. Secondly, other countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East offer a higher salary compared to Malaysia. It could also be due to the currency exchange as S$600 is more than RM1,000.”
Another economist, RAM’s Yeah Kim Leng said, “Higher wages and stronger currencies in the richer countries which translate into larger earnings differentials in rupiah are resulting in lesser number of Indonesian maids interested to work in Malaysia. Except for closer proximity and cultural affinity, we are considered a second best option.”
Still, this severe shortage of maids is contributing to a growing feeling of disenchantment among the middle-class. Most of these double-income families feel that they are entitled to maids as they work hard at their jobs. But the reality is setting in that they may soon not be able to afford domestic help as Malaysia struggles to keep up with the regional wages for maids.
“Right now, you already have to pay an upfront fee of RM8,000 to RM9,000 to the agency to get a maid... if there is even one available. The amount includes the maid’s salary for six months,” said Teoh May Kuan, an accountant. Her family has been without a maid for the past six months.
“Luckily, my son is already 12 so he can help with the chores,” said the 43-year-old who has been sharing the housework with her businessman husband. Ironically, most of the middle-class themselves grew up in families without maids. They did chores around the house but today, find it impossible to work full-time and keep house at the same time.
While many families have resorted to hiring illegal Indonesian maids — there is an estimated one million of them residing in Malaysia, many of them runaways from their previous employers — there are more and more families who have learned to make do with part-time help.
“I pay somebody to come and do the cleaning once a week and I pay her RM300 a month... she also does the laundry and irons the clothes,” said Chris Chan, a lawyer.
When you consider that a full-time, live-in maid is paid RM650 a month, this is expensive but for the 46 per cent of the country’s population that makes up the middle-class, this is the new reality. Something those who live overseas are already familiar with.