Side Views

Preparing for life without maids — Richard Hartung

April 11, 2012

APRIL 11 — Even the concept of giving maids one day off a week has sparked lively debates about whether families can survive without help for a single day.

The real question, though, may be what families would do if they didn’t have maids at all.

It’s easy to think that they will always keep coming here, since they have been part of society for so long. Even many middle-income families can hire a maid, who may work over 70 hours a week doing everything from childcare to cooking and cleaning or more. Indeed, nearly 20 per cent of households have one and we employ more than 200,000 foreign domestic workers.

Yet, even though families may feel entirely dependent on them, current trends here and elsewhere are shifting towards fewer maids rather than more.

In Malaysia, for example, Human Resources Minister S. Subramaniam told Malaysians to “prepare for life without maids” after Indonesia’s director-general of Labour Placement Development, Reyna Usman, said that domestic helpers sent to Malaysia could only be made to do a very limited set of tasks — housekeeping, cooking, babysitting and caring for the elderly.

In the Philippines, the Overseas Employment Administration has periodically placed bans on maids working in some foreign countries and could easily place a ban on Singapore if Filipinas here encountered serious problems.

Policies or practices in other countries could change, too, and restrict maids from coming here.

Domestically, Singapore’s shift towards less reliance on foreign workers may also mean fewer maids and higher costs.

Singapore Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in his Budget speech in February that “economy-wide, we will have to take further measures to avoid an ever-increasing dependence on foreign labour”.

A critical question, then, is how families could cope without a maid.

In places like Japan and South Korea as well as the United States and Europe, few families can afford to hire one. Yet, the existence of a variety of alternatives to the services they perform means families still fare well even without domestic help. Looking at practices in those other countries, then, can show what else may work here.

Childcare is a key concern and countries like France provide an excellent example of what else can work well.

The French crèche system provides affordable full-day childcare for children from two-and-half months to three years — most French children attend full-day nursery school between the ages of three and six. Government-subsidised fees at crèches vary depending on income and the type of crèche, so they are affordable even for lower-income families and state-run nursery schools are free.

While parents here often suffer time constraints and require help in meal preparation, in other places they have, again, developed alternatives.

Cornell University researchers found, for example, that Americans use a dozen coping strategies, including prepared entrees, take-out meals and quicker-to-prepare foods. The ready availability of hawker centres here as well as support from grandparents would give local families even more options.

Cleaning is another task that few families may want to take over from their maids. But, as in other countries, there is a burgeoning industry of companies providing part-time cleaners who can also do the laundry.

Sure, parents need to mop up when children make a mess. But once-a-week helpers can take care of bigger tasks like cleaning the flat and the toilets, or dry-cleaning companies can help with the laundry. And technology like room-cleaning Roombas may provide more alternatives before long.

For families with elderly parents at home, an expanding range of geriatric care services like those in other countries as well as technology like motion sensors and devices that send alerts or remind the elderly to take pills could help provide the daytime care needed.

It’s true that many families would need to do something different for childcare and cooking and cleaning, as well as other tasks, if maids suddenly disappeared. Yet the multitude of alternatives elsewhere shows how families can thrive even without them.

While practices that enable families to do without maids are already in place in other countries, many alternatives are not as well-developed here. Hence, solutions could require everything from longer-term changes in government policy or workplace practices to changes in attitude.

Setting up a childcare system like the one in France or changing workplace practices so parents can more easily leave work in time to pick up their children, as happens in Denmark, could take years.

However, the combination of policy changes in other countries, increasing costs and downward pressure on foreign worker numbers here means living without maids is more likely than before to become a reality.

While even considering life without maids could well result in outraged howls of protest, it may now be time to start preparing for a society without domestic helpers.

Rather than being taken by surprise not far in the future, proactively starting preparations may enable families to thrive rather than struggle when there are far fewer maids in Singapore. — Today

* Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.