Friday, June 26, 2009

Maids vs Work-life balance

There is another aspect to the maids issue that we tend to overlook. It may be ignored because at the micro-level there is nothing any individual can do about it. But a collective will may bring about a gradual shift.

Most families need dual-income or even quadruple income to finance their aspirations. Both parents need to go out to earn a living.

It is no longer appropriate to expect parents or in-laws to look after our children. Besides, they are ageing and, it is not fair on them. The extended family system of care that many older Malaysians used to witness and enjoy when we were children ourselves is a bygone thing. Another victim of "modernisation".

So, here we are. Housing loans to pay. Car loans to pay. Dining out. Inflation. Lifestyle. Tuition for the children. Saving for the university fees that our children will need.

The causes are manifold, of course.

So, domestic chores such as basic housekeeping, gardening, laundry, ironing and, cooking needs to be outsourced.

But, on a shoe-string budget most Malaysian families are prepared only to pay, say, RM600-00 for domestic help. And, the agents who intermediate on this, are more than happy make arrangements with their overseas counterparts, particularly in Indonesia, to liberally recruit all and sundry in the most remote villages of Java. There is hardly any quality control because screening and training is costly.

In the competitive stakes for domestic help Malaysians cannot afford to pay what the people in Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore can pay. So, Malaysians are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

So, Malaysians have a problem. We cannot afford to have only one spouse work. We cannot afford good quality domestic help.

Is this due to a cheap and weak Ringgit?

Is this due to low wages and salaries relative to other countries?

Is this due to poor quality primary and secondary education that requires us to pay tuition for almost every subject to augment what teachers don't teach in class?

These are social and economic issues that requires a seriously holistic appraisal. The process has started albeit hesitantly. But, it will be a long and arduous path.

Where does that leave any aspiration for work-life balance?


walla said...

It could all have started with an eagle, bro dm.

You have posted an interesting angle. Indeed, more holistic approaches should be adopted with regards all things malaysiana.

For instance, one wonders whether there has been any foreign workers policy from day one. That would have included specific rights and benefits, rigorous mechanisms for pre-screening and on-course monitoring, identikits and enforcement, proper system for wage payments and records, roles, standards and pricing structures for workers, brokers, agencies and employers, and most importantly, a barometer to track the changing dynamics of malaysian households, employers and disposable income or wage levels so that the policies will operate in sync and not antipodean to the interests of all stakeholders.

These are important things to have first so that if something goes wrong later, flash points can be averted by saying there is already a system and understanding in operation and what has gone wrong has only statistically been an insignificant infarction that does not nullify the original understanding or if one side tries to muscle in at the negotiation table, free market forces will kick in and other sources are available on call on grounds that the system in place is fair and square.

You need that sort of stable and enlightened platform not just to streamline the whole process more seamlessly but also to avert international incidents, build better public relations, instill harmony in the exchange, get better value for money at all levels, and, not the least, get a stronger handle on what is happening to our human capital edge.

On the last point, it is interesting to view the changing functions of foreign workers in this country. They have gone upmarket in the local human capital equation but one wonders what has happened to the locals whose roles they have displaced. When it started, they were in construction and plantations. Then they worked in homes, factories, eateries and petrol stations. After that, municipal services. Now hotels, motor workshops, street-side retail, even as cashiers.

The government must have realized this, for soon enough it started to talk more and more about the imperative to build more local value-added. But since locals appear not to want those jobs and firms can't seem to automate or do more value-adding research, our human capital equation is thus now stuck in limbo where the people to whom we have outsourced some of the services are the ones who are value-adding to their take-home pay whilst locals who are paying them are not able to find the next higher niche in order to be able to bear the next level of employer-employee relation. So that when you have as well more and more women graduating than men, the latter will in the absence of higher value-adding enterprises be reduced more and more to become just rent-collectors and commission agents, two occupations which are comfy for the reason they don't call for much value creation. Since this is just swirling shrinking local funds within the domestic economy, the counterbalancing dialectic should be to promote more export enterprises - goods and services flow out, income flows in. We don't seem to do enough at the individual and corporate levels in this domain.

walla said...

Now, for the eagle. There is a wood-carved eagle on the sixth floor of the biggest shopping mall in Jakarta. In fact the whole floor is filled with equally magnificent wood carvings reflecting the superb skills of the natives.

That mall is owned by an indonesian minister who happens to be in charge of approving all exit permits for their workers to go overseas.

One is thus tempted to ask how much has each worker been cessed over there before and after coming over. That is hardship to them which is unnecessary, even if one adds in the cost of rudimentary training and prepaid travel as well as their medical which has to be repeated over here whose cost is local-borne on top of an agency fee which has grown so substantially that if you factor it on per month basis into the wage in addition to the subsistence and living costs, it will turn out to be quite a large sum. In fact the basic question remains - how much of that agency fee has to be sent over and to who? The government should ascertain this and ask why with view to reducing that agency fee.

Thus it seems that because we didn't have a real foreign worker policy from the beginning, new costs have surfaced which reek of poor foresight and planning while adding pressure on local household incomes.

It remains to say that a face-saving quick-fix way out is to untether our maid and other foreign worker sourcing, and go to where supply is more abundant and affordable. But in the case of maids, there is one concern with regards to one new source but since this is bolehland, close one eye and get over it, otherwise who will mind the family and the house? That's the deciding factor(cough).

Lastly, the social and economic issues we face at household level are indeed challenging. They do not have immediate solutions. In many regards, they are also political in root. Unless we address them in parliament, our esteemed national fount of indirection and indecision, they will remain unresolved.

When you have students lament they don't know what their teachers are saying, and teachers are unsure of their facts, then tuition will mushroom. That will eat into their time to grow. Because their time is also taken up in those cocu activities where they have to angle for positions in order to do an endless series of projects and events that take even more of their time and cough more money out of parents besides tying down the time of the latter to fetch them from school multiple-times because no one feels safe leaving them to even take a public bus back whilst the school bus doesn't accommodate unprescribed pick-ups. See, minister?

And we haven't even started on the urban poor who need both parents to work even more.

Anonymous said...

Employer-employee. Master-slave.

Be an employer and NOT a master.

The latter leaves no rooms for understanding and negotiations.