Wednesday March 21, 2012
Long-term plan needed
QUESTION TIME By P. GUNASEGARAM
Indonesia’s latest ludicrous suggestion and a long stand-off over the maid issue suggests that Malaysians look elsewhere or fend for themselves.
MAIDS made in Indonesia are going to set a world record of sorts if the ridiculous, ludicrous arrangement suggested by a senior Indonesian official comes to pass. Why, they may even become the highest paid maids in the world and earn more than our fresh graduates.
An Indonesian official had announced last week that Indonesian maids will be paid RM700 a month for just one of four jobs that they are trained to do – cooking, baby-sitting, taking care of the elderly and housekeeping.
If that arrangement should materialise – it is clear it won’t – maids who do all four jobs will get a salary of RM2,800 a month, which will put them at the top of the salary scale quite easily, and give them more than what Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong or Singapore pays.
Trouble is, Malaysians just won’t be able to afford that kind of salary, which means that we won’t be hiring Indonesian maids anytime soon because they have simply priced themselves out of the market, probably not just Malaysia but just about anywhere else in the world, too.
The quick fix is of course illegal labour, which is largely Indonesian anyway, and which neither Malaysia nor Indonesia seem to want to protect from exploitation, and without whom not only households but also whole industries will come to a grinding halt.
Such is our dependence on our friends from across the Straits of Malacca for cheap labour, a very unhealthy situation that cries out for a solution, but which we have done little or nothing about to solve over the years.
Dealing with the specific issue of maids, we must not push our largely law-abiding populace into becoming lawbreakers because most households out of sheer necessity need two incomes.
If they can’t get affordable domestic help, they will out of desperation turn to illegals. In economic terms, that’s the black market operating.
If the legal market prices itself out, you will have many others willing to do the job for less and without all the encumbrances of paying their agents here and in Indonesia a small fortune to merely get a chance to work.
If common sense prevails, then Indonesia will settle for a reasonable salary for its maids, which should conform to the minimum wage whenever that is announced, and put in place together with the Malaysian authorities’ safeguards to protect them and ensure they are not mistreated.
Both sides must realise that middlemen take a huge amount from these unfortunate workers who have to leave their homes and work in a foreign land and live with a strange family out of economic necessity.
The amount that these middlemen take (the latest figures indicate some RM4,200 to be paid by the maid and RM9,200 by the employer, making a total of RM13,600) is some 20 months’ salary at RM700 a month for a 24-month contract.
Reduce this to a more reasonable sum and there is more for the worker to take home.
Meantime, we should look at other short-term solutions.
Why should we restrict the hiring of maids to only from Indonesia? What about China, India, Sri Lanka in addition to the Philippines and Cambodia?
Why not streamline arrangements to get maids from these countries?
Why not allow the setting up of agencies which will be prepared to get maids from these countries?
The impasse with Indonesia has been going on for too long.
Yes, there are humanitarian considerations and we must make every effort to protect our migrant guest workers.
They provide a real service and we must make every effort to give them a reasonable salary.
But we as a country must realise that we cannot continue to indefinitely depend on cheap labour provided by neighbouring countries.
We must realise that such imports cheapen the price of labour of our own citizens in the same way that hiring professionals from other countries will dampen wages of our own professionals.
But no one sees it fit to protect our own labour from the deleterious impact of cheap imported foreign labour, which keeps them in a poverty trap indefinitely as their wages get depressed by imported alternatives. Why the double standard for labour?
In the longer term, we must realise the need to wean ourselves off cheap labour if we want the entire nation to develop together into a high-income country.
You simply can’t have a high-income country if your labour is cheap.
Everyone’s income has to increase along with the increase in productivity.
That calls for a solution which is simple and really not new.
Most maids are absolutely required to take care of babies and the old.
There are other avenues for housekeeping and the rest.
If there are quality yet affordable creches and daycare centres for older children and the elderly, most people may prefer to do away with maids.
An efficient centre with a few qualified people can look after many times the number of people instead of the one-to-one to one-to-three ratio for most maids.
It’s about time we set about doing such things, to find a longer lasting and permanent solution to the maid problem.
For now, made-in-Indonesia may be expedient but even that is uncertain. Let’s get prepared to fend for ourselves.