A shortage of affordable and accessible maids has upset Malaysia’s chattering classes with long waiting lists for the prized domestic helpers forcing thoroughly urbane families into cleaning-up their own mess.
Many are blaming Indonesia, which barred its citizens from working as maids in Malaysia almost two years ago after a series of complaints that included rape and beatings.
Indonesian maids worked for much lower rates than locals and the number of Malaysians wanting one has soared to 35,000.
Many Malaysians are adverse to menial work, particularly the long hours and low pay on offer for domestic helpers. All-up there are two million foreign workers inside the country of 28 million filling low-paid positions ranging from maids to plantation workers.
Since the Indonesian ban was imposed, the number of maids working here has dropped to 220,000 from 270,000 with other countries, like The Philippines, declining to take up the slack. Agents are now hoping to attract low paid workers from Cambodia, and also Bangladesh while increasing numbers from Burma, to fill positions locals don’t want.
The Cambodian government is well aware of the potential windfall the country could make from sending its people abroad to work – something previous generations would never have considered. Phnom Penh has also taken the unusual step of asking Kuala Lumpur to lower the minimum working age for domestic helpers to 18 from 21, upsetting human rights activists in Malaysia who are dealing with an increased number of Khmers in trouble.
A case in point is Lina, who says she is 21-years-old, anglicized her name and traded her home on Cambodia’s southern coast near Sihanoukville for a job in Malaysia where she worked under contract in a hair salon.
She was supposed to be paid 1,000 ringgit a month but rarely was. Instead she says she was forced to take out loans from her employer to cover costs which included accommodation, food and the products for work like shampoo and conditioner, she was also told she had to purchase from her employer.
After nine months she was told she owed 2,000 to 3,000 ringgit and would have to work it off. The math doesn’t make much sense but that didn’t seem to bother her employer.
Any regular employee heading into such a position would simply walk away, but Lina was on a two year deal offered by touts who scour the region looking for cheap labor. So she fled, and on the advice of friends found help at Tenaganita, a rights group, who have freely housed and fed her.
Meanwhile, her former employers have called the authorities and she is not allowed to leave the country until her debts have been repaid, an infuriating position, which Tenaganita is negotiating.
Lina was lucky when compared with the number of girls who accept work contracts only to find themselves working for violent employers, being pushed into the sex industry or worse. It often amounts to human trafficking.
Aegile Fernandez, who helps run Tenganita, has a litany of horror stories. She said she knew of a human trafficker who spent a year studying psychiatry at a local university so he could better control and manipulate the girls who came under his charge before sending them off on dubious work contracts or into the sex industry.
Many countries simply ban their women from working abroad in menial jobs. Others, like The Philippines, have well-established and enforced laws that afford some protection and guarantees for its citizens in foreign jobs.
Fernandez does not want to see the age limit for women working in Malaysia lowered. She said such a life-changing decision – to leave one’s family and emigrate – requires a mature mind and anything less is simply too young. She says Cambodian girls often lie about their age and carry fake Cambodian I.D. cards which they used to obtain passports: “Children as young as 14, 15, 16 have passports saying they are 21, 22 and 23.”
The Cambodian response, however, has been anything but sympathetic. The country has enjoyed generous ubsidies from foreign donors and nongovernmental organizations but a striking wealth gap has emerged between the elite government-connected few and the rest of the population.
“I am very upset with the Cambodian Government, they have written a letter to the Malaysian government asking them to lower the age requirements,” Fernandez says. “They say things like ‘we are a poor country’ and this ‘will allow poor people a chance to work’,” she said. “It is nonsense, they are still children.”
Source: The Expat April 2011
This article has been edited for ExpatGomalaysia.com
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