MALAYSIA - Pushed to the limit by their maid woes, employers are appealing to the Government to take over the recruitment of foreign maids to make domestic help affordable.
Calling for a government-to-government (G2G) initiative for direct recruitment of maids, manager Kim Soo, 35, suggests that the government "cut out the third party bureaucracy once and for all".
Maid agencies earn from both employers and employees, she gripes, and asks for the middleman's role to be phased out.
Soo claims owners of maid agencies make so much from the high fees they charge that many drive Alfa Romeos, BMWs and other expensive cars.
"I paid a whopping RM10,000 (S$3,800) for my current Indonesian helper and have had to deal with rude and dishonest agents who won't give any information unless there's money involved," she says.
"If maid recruitment is done by the Government, it will be so much cheaper," she adds.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the Malaysian and Indonesian governments would allow the maid recruitment agencies in both countries to work on a new memorandum of understanding to enable more Indonesian maids to work here.
The move would ensure that the number of maids to Malaysia reaches the desired level, he said.
The Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies, meanwhile, expects the price of hiring maids to go up with the new arrangement while the Malaysian Maid Employers Association regards it as "dangerous" to leave it to agencies to decide on the cost of hiring domestic workers.
Alexis Mark, 35, complains that the price of convenience is hefty.
Although the cost of going through maid agencies is exorbitant, she has no choice but to use them as "I have no idea how to bring a foreign helper into the country".
"With an agency, you pay a large amount of money up front but there's still a risk that the maid will run away after a few days into the job.
"But if an agency is good, they allow us to have exchangeable 'trial maids' and get the tedious paperwork done. We just have to pay and sign the document," she adds.
Working mother-of-four Suraya Kamaluddin, 34, says agency fees are a heavy financial burden but she needs a maid to help at home with her children aged between one and nine years old.
"Agency fees are not standardised. It's ridiculous what some are charging, yet they claim it's 'standard'," she points out.
Because of the high agency fees, Suraya got her Indonesian live-in helper without going through a registered maid agency.
She claims that many people are doing this now to get a maid because it is "just too expensive" to go to a "proper agency".
"I paid only RM4,000 inclusive of the maid's flight ticket here. It's a fraction of what maid agencies charge but we had to sort out the immigration documents ourselves," she says, adding that she does not mind taking a few days leave to do the running around as she can save thousands of ringgit.
Operators of maid agencies, however, feel their services are still needed for smooth recruitment and orientation of foreign helpers.
Agensi Pekerjaan Strategi Setia supervisor Tang Sun Sun, 37, says employers will face difficulties without the services of professional domestic maid recruitment agencies.
Bringing foreign maids into the country via a G2G initiative, she explains, will land employers in difficulty if the maids run away or have problems adjusting.
"You cannot go crying to the Government or call up a minister if your maid has an emotional breakdown or if she is not disciplined.
"For example, training Cambodian maids takes time because of the language barrier. What if they come here and still can't communicate with local employers?"
Maid agencies, she explains, handle the nitty-gritty issues that crop up and replace maids who run away within three months of employment.
"Foreign helpers are not products. They are people with feelings and different learning speeds."
She concedes that getting a maid can be pricey "but agencies settle all the legal documentation and make sure that employers are taken care of."
The managing director of a maid agency in Kuala Lumpur reveals that some 500 licensed maid agencies in the country will be out of business if G2G is implemented across the board. Bringing in foreign labour via the G2G initiative "just won't work", he opines.
He claims that the G2G initiative with Bangladesh has failed because agencies there are sabotaging the efforts.
"Bangladeshi foreign workers now pay their agents less to come here, so the latter are boycotting Malaysia. Instead of G2G, it's better for countries to just sign the memorandum of understanding (MoU) when dealing with foreign labour.
"Once signed, these MoUs are binding on us (maid agencies) because we have to give a signed undertaking to the Human Resource Ministry that we will adhere to the same terms or risk losing our licence," he says, adding that MoU results in "fixed fees" that are agreeable to all parties.
Blaming unscrupulous agencies, he admits that agency fees have ballooned from RM7,800 several years ago to RM16,000 today.
"In the late 2000, there was a freeze on Indonesian helpers. Employers were desperate so the Government relaxed the Journey Perform Visa (JP) application process.
"Up until Oct 1 this year, Indonesians who came in as tourists were allowed to apply for a JP which lets them work here. Agencies from Malaysia and Indonesia took advantage of the situation to squeeze employers for more money," he shares.
IRC Global Search's CEO Michael Heah says the Government should emphasise on developing an employer's code of conduct for hiring and managing migrant workers instead of removing the "pertinent roles" of licensed maid agencies.
He adds that IRC Global, a labour outsourcing company, presented an "Employer Code of Conduct" to the Human Resource Ministry last year.
"Hopefully, it can be regulated as a national policy for industry and domestic employers," he says, adding that maid abuse cases mostly occurred in the privacy of the employers' home or office.
"Abusive employers should be punished, not the agencies," he stresses.
Heah also calls on the Government to work with licensed agencies and non-governmental organisations to stop human trafficking.
"These days, there are many employers who abuse their maids and force them to work as hourly cleaners for profit.
"Human trafficking has already penetrated our homes, yet many families are oblivious that they are party to the horrendous act of human slavery.
"For example, we are enjoying the services of hourly cleaners but their employment contracts are as domestic helpers," he says, adding that the Government should work together with agencies to educate households.
And he strongly feels that the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act (ATIP) should be implemented even at the employers' home.