Field notes

Poverty drives Malaysian women to work as maids

Ever since she started work two months ago, Ms Nor Asma has formed a strong bond with her employer's kids, especially Ahmad Willdan Arjuna Ahmad Fedtri, three. Ms Nor Asma Arifin, who was initially apprehensive about living with strangers, has adjust
Ms Nor Asma Arifin, who was initially apprehensive about living with strangers, has adjusted well to living with her employer’s family. She helps care for his three children and does the household chores.ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI
Ever since she started work two months ago, Ms Nor Asma has formed a strong bond with her employer's kids, especially Ahmad Willdan Arjuna Ahmad Fedtri, three. Ms Nor Asma Arifin, who was initially apprehensive about living with strangers, has adjust
Ever since she started work two months ago, Ms Nor Asma has formed a strong bond with her employer’s kids, especially Ahmad Willdan Arjuna Ahmad Fedtri, three.ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI

Most are struggling to get by doing odd jobs; others are fresh grads who can't find work

When Ms Nor Asma Arifin graduated with a diploma in accounting, the fifth of 10 children thought she was on the way out of poverty. But the 21-year-old from Dungun, Terengganu, spent a year looking for a job after graduation with no luck.

Desperate to survive, she then took up whatever job was available, including a position as a supermarket cashier, with a nett pay of only RM800 (S$257) a month.

"But that was still not enough for me to last until the next pay cheque," said Ms Nor Asma, who also had to help support her parents, who do odd jobs in their kampung.

"So when I saw an advertisement by My Local Maid looking for Malaysian women to work as domestic maids - with a minimum nett pay of RM1,000 and paid leave - I thought I should give it a shot," she told The Straits Times.

While most of Malaysia's some 250,000 registered maids are predominantly from neighbouring states like Indonesia or the Philippines, at least one business - My Local Maid (MLM) - has been set up to supply Malaysian domestic workers.

Lawyer Wan Roslan Wan Othman, 43, and his friends came up with the idea of the business.

"We feel that coming up with MLM is a pragmatic way to deal with the problem of unemployment among women in Malaysia," he said.

Ever since she started work two months ago, Ms Nor Asma has formed a strong bond with her employer's kids, especially Ahmad Willdan Arjuna Ahmad Fedtri, three. Ms Nor Asma Arifin, who was initially apprehensive about living with strangers, has adjust
Ms Nor Asma Arifin, who was initially apprehensive about living with strangers, has adjusted well to living with her employer's family. She helps care for his three children and does the household chores. ST PHOTO: NADIRAH H. RODZI

  • 60 Number of paid leave days, including days off on weekends, the maid gets under the contract.

    34% Rate of unemployment for fresh graduates in Malaysia last year, up from 30 per cent in 2013.

    14 Number of sick leave days the maid gets, as stated in the contract.

STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE

Some of them earn less than a few ringgit a day from doing odd jobs, just enough to buy them a meal. They would just drink water for the rest of the day. It breaks my heart because there is only so much that I can do to help them financially.

LAWYER WAN ROSLAN WAN OTHMAN, on how he has come across many women struggling to make ends meet.

THANKFUL FOR WORK

I'm very grateful to have a job after spending a year looking for one. It's too early to say whether I see myself doing this (working as a maid) for long so we'll see how things go.

MS NOR ASMA ARIFIN, on whether she sees a future for herself working as a maid.

While a breakdown of the unemployment rate of women in Malaysia is not available, he has come across many women struggling to make a living.

Mr Wan Roslan, who often gives out donations to poor villagers in his hometown in Terengganu, observed that the items always ran out before all families were covered.

He said: "I have noticed that many families struggle to make ends meet, especially women who are left with their children by their spouses.

"Some of them earn less than a few ringgit a day from doing odd jobs, just enough to buy them a meal. They would just drink water for the rest of the day. It breaks my heart because there is only so much that I can do to help them financially."

POSITION OPEN TO ALL

All women are welcome at My Local Maid, from the homeless to graduates, as long as they are healthy and can perform the stipulated duties as a maid.

Mr Wan Roslan said the business has so far received between 60 and 70 applications from employers and placed more than 20 Malaysian maids nationwide.

While more than 40 women have signed up, some of them failed the test. The women who signed up are between 20 and 45 years old.

With the proportion of jobless fresh graduates in Malaysia rising - the unemployment rate of this group went up from 30 per cent in 2013 to 34 per cent last year - there was even a degree holder who applied to be a maid.

However, she turned down the job later because of the pay.

At My Local Maid, the minimum wage is set at RM1,000 a month and can go up to RM1,500 depending on the job scope, said Mr Wan Roslan.

While their pay is similar to that of foreign maids, hiring a Malaysian maid is cheaper as employers do not have to foot the bill for various permits or licences.

Employers pay around RM5,000 to MLM for the maids' tests, training and transportation.

Applicants have to undergo a thorough medical check-up - including pregnancy, HIV and drug tests - before being trained.

"Training them is important because not all of them know how to operate household appliances," he said, adding that the majority of employers and maids are from Terengganu and Kelantan.

There are safeguards in place to protect all the parties, noted Mr Wan Roslan. A contract, valid for one year, will be signed to protect all the parties.

"Under the contract, employers are also required to provide a 60-day paid leave and 14 days' sick leave for the maid," he said. The paid leave includes days off during weekends.

He said if a maid runs away or commits theft, the employer can file a police report or get in touch with the maid's family.

"A maid is replaceable within the first 30 days with no charge if her employer is not happy with her but after that, it is between the maid and her employer. Salaries are paid directly to the maid," he said.

FOOD, SHELTER TAKEN CARE OF

After being jobless for a year, Ms Nor Asma is now working as a maid for a family in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Initially, she said she took some time to think about signing up to be a maid as she was not sure if she could live in a new place with strangers. She decided to give it a try and has been working for two months since.

She said: "There's not much difference from living in my parents' home. I wake up at 5am and start tidying up the house before making breakfast. The best part is, food and shelter are well taken care of, and the perks are great."

Her employer, senior producer Ahmad Fedtri Yahya, 36, said hiring her was one of the best decisions he and his wife have ever made.

Ms Nor Asma helps care for their three children and does household chores.

Mr Ahmad Fedtri had considered hiring an Indonesian maid but he decided against it.

He said: "There is no hassle involved in hiring Nor Asma because there's no language barrier and she doesn't need a work permit. It would also be easier for us to travel should we need to take her along."

Asked if she sees herself working as a domestic helper in the long run, Ms Nor Asma said: "I'm very grateful to have a job after spending a year looking for one. It's too early to say whether I see myself doing this (working as a maid) for long so we'll see how things go."


Foreign interest in Malaysian maids

Just months after My Local Maid was founded in May, it has already received several inquiries from Australia, Britain and New Zealand.

Mr Wan Roslan said there are plans to supply maids abroad. "We have had several potential employers seeking to hire a helper through MLM but out of the four inquiries, none has been successful just yet."

Among the issues to be ironed out are visa application and pay.

"They want to hire our maids but under our existing policy and pay", but it may be hard for such Malaysian maids to work overseas, he noted, given that most are uneducated and do not speak English.

They also may not want to work overseas as they are scared of becoming victims of human trafficking, he added. Not to mention that a pay of between RM1,000 (S$320) and RM1,500 is too little.

"The income bracket should be aligned with how much helpers earn in the respective country."

Mr Wan Roslan added that MLM would need two to four months to train the maids before they could be sent overseas. They would need to be trained in the local language of the foreign country, for example.
 

Singapore may be the best destination for Malaysian maids, he said.

"Although Singapore is a foreign land, it is close to Johor and there are tonnes of Johoreans who speak English and are looking for an opportunity to work there. Also, some Singaporeans know Bahasa Malaysia."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Poverty drives Malaysian women to work as maids'. Print Edition | Subscribe