by Jenny Gryzelius. First published in The Sun 13 April 2012

One of the first debates that I came across after my interest in Malaysia was sparked by my engagement to a local was the maid debate. In this debate, it struck me that there was a demand from the public that the Malaysian government step in and negotiate with the Indonesian government the terms and conditions for maids to work in Malaysian households. Coming from a society where wage levels are high and employer taxes at such a punitive level that not even the very well-off can afford live-in maids, people opt for part-time cleaners and/or part-time (afternoon) nannies to look after the kids after school while the parents are still at work. For mere mortals (i.e. the middle classes and below) like my own family, we just had to get by with state-subsidised childcare and learn to do chores from an early age.

In the context of the Malaysian maid debate, what Malaysians have to remember is that Indonesia is not under any obligation to send maids here. As much as I am in favour of relatively open borders and the possibility of migrant labour, before that can happen there is a lot of social infrastructure that has to be built. In fact, what has been seen from the most integrated international labour market in the world, the European Union, is that even when this social infrastructure is in place, people prefer not to move abroad if given the option of work in their own country.

So why shouldn’t the Indonesian government make demands for its citizens? Though Indonesia is still faced with relatively high poverty levels and a lower GDP per capita than Malaysia, it is nonetheless growing at an impressive speed. Indonesians do not need to come here to work as maids for a pittance pay any longer. There are options for them at home: factories, the service sectors, as well as a growing domestic middle class that “needs” maids.

In fact, even if Indonesian women are keen enough to come over to Malaysia to work as multi-tasking maids for RM700 a month, restrictions made by their government still do not concern Malaysians. They are something the Indonesian women have to raise with their own government. If this is what they want, then it is their battle to fight, through the democratic process or through protests and by voicing their concerns publicly. To put it simply, it is an issue that concerns domestic Indonesian policy processes more than anything else.

What is more, this insistence on maids and the demanding of negotiations with the Indonesian government is obscuring a very important part of this story. As I said at the start of this article, in high-income earning countries, maids are not commonplace and absolutely not seen as a right or privilege by the masses. Maids are a luxury, available only to the very few. And as Malaysia moves towards the coveted status of a high-income nation, wage costs here will likewise make maids unaffordable to the general public.

Therefore, what is really needed is to steer the debate about family politics away from this reliance on maids to a more realistic future scenario, where there must be a coherent social policy, dealing with childcare issues and after-school activities. Family-friendly businesses have to be advanced and flexible work solutions have to become more commonplace.

The most challenging thing for the Malaysian government as well as Malaysians at large will be to develop a system that strikes a balance between the bloated and rigid welfare states (for most part nearly bankrupted) of western Europe, and the over reliance on underpaid foreign labour. There are no straightforward solutions to this dilemma. Nevertheless, in the case of childcare, it can be achieved through clever usage of market forces, such as small-scale businesses running low-cost nurseries, where as long as there are many actors, competition will ensure quality. In addition to this, needs-based state assistance can be given to families that would be struggling with childcare.

One thing that really is clear is that a move towards high-income earning status will bring about challenges to the Malaysian social policy and family politics. The solutions to these are not to pressure the Indonesian government about removing the multi-task restriction, nor is it to look towards Myanmar for new exploitation grounds. The answer lies in developing a sustainable social policy – where support is given to those in need. But also it lies in individual responsibility for looking after one’s own home and looking for out-of-the-box solutions.

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Jenny Gryzelius is senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)

Image Credit: Daily Venus Diva

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