MARCH 21 — The latest debacle about maids from Indonesia only allowed to do one chore has been met with howls of protest by prospective employers. There have been calls for a boycott of Indonesian maids, to be replaced by maids from other countries.
In countries that are developed in income terms, maids are a luxury available only to the affluent. Even relatively well-off families do their own chores with the aid of appliances, and rely on crèches and old-age homes for babysitting children and care of the elderly. Oddly enough, many Malaysians migrating abroad for economic reasons seemingly face no problems adjusting to a lifestyle sans maids, but those who are here complain bitterly.
Complaints range from maids arriving completely untrained, having an attitude problem, being lazy, falling in love with the neighbourhood security guard and finally running away with him after mistreating the employer’s family. One has to wonder why anyone would put up with these nightmares of maids and pay for the privilege.
The answer probably has a lot to do with the overall rate of economic development of Malaysia’s neighbours and less to do with the quality of maids being in decline. Even a decade ago, the gap in incomes between the average Indonesian maid and her Malaysian employers was wide enough for it to be considered a privilege to be allowed to work here.
Simply put, a decade ago a Malaysian household with an income of RM2,000/month could afford a maid for RM400 to do all the chores. In that scenario, even the occasional horror story of mistreatment by abusive employers was labelled a one off and shoved under the carpet.
But economic realities have changed. As real income growth in the rest of Asia has outpaced that of Malaysia, domestic labour has begun to demand higher wages and treatment at the workplace at par with other service industries. The same trend is being witnessed in the plantation sector. If you pay peanuts, expect to get monkeys.
Developed city states in Asia like Hong Kong and Singapore have already acknowledged the trend. In Hong Kong a prospective employer needs to have a minimum income of HK$15,000/month (RM5,906) per domestic helper, needs to pay the maid a minimum of HK$3,740/month (RM1,472), provide free medical coverage and provide at least 24 hours a week as rest. Singapore has started following suit.
In this scenario, the simple reality is that the average Malaysian income cannot compete any longer in the regional domestic helper marketplace. In 2011, quoting from a survey conducted by the Ministry of Human Resources, MTUC president Mohd Khalid bin Hj Atan said that around 35 per cent out of 1.3 million Malaysian workers were earning a salary below RM700. “They are already poor.” The reason behind this, Khalid pointed out, was that wage rates have only been increasing at a rate of 2 per cent annually over the last 10 to 15 years whereas the prices of consumer goods have tripled or quadrupled within the same period.
The harsh truth is that foreign maids are no longer within the means of middle income households in Malaysia. The problem is that many Malaysians refuse to see this reality and acknowledge that their purchasing power is not as strong as it once was. Why complain about the rising cost of cars when all you can afford is public transport? Or the cost of private healthcare when all you can afford is a government hospital?
Not only that, the situation is going to get worse, not better. Expect to pay more, treat them better and get better quality but lower quantity of work in return. In actual fact expect to see this sector become more attractive for Malaysian workers as pay and benefits rise.
If a Malaysian school dropout can expect to make a higher than expected wage with standard workplace benefits as a maid much in the way company and personal drivers do, the sector will emerge. The caveat being that much like drivers, maids will be restricted to the affluent Malaysian.
The developed world is used to seeing maids as a privilege for the wealthiest. It’s about time Malaysia followed suit.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.