'Hire refugees as maids instead'

Mama's president Engku Ahmad Fauzi Engku Muhsein.

PETALING JAYA, Malaysia - Malaysian employers need not look further than home for their foreign maids. The refugee community in the country can provide a cheaper alternative source, supplying possibly over 20,000 maids.

Malaysian Maid Employers Association (Mama) president Engku Ahmad Fauzi Engku Muhsein said they plan to work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) soon to come out with a win-win solution for both employers and the refugees.

"The refugees need to work to support themselves here and we need manpower for domestic helpers," Engku Ahmad pointed out.

"For employers, the main advantage will be cost. The refugees are already in the country, so we can save on transportation and levy costs."

There are currently about 104,070 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in the country, 30 per cent of whom are women. More than 90,000 are from Myanmar while the others are from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Engku Ahmad said tapping the refugee labour force was one option Mama came up with after Indonesia announced it would stop supplying maids to foreign countries in 2017. An estimated 35,000 Malaysian households are currently on the waiting list for foreign maids.

"We hope to meet the UNHCR soon to discuss the proposal and if acceptable, work out the mechanics, including the law, processing and medical screening before proposing it to the relevant ministries," he said.

In an immediate response, representatives from various refugee communities in Malaysia welcomed Mama's proposal, saying it would help refugees who needed to support their families with a stable income.

The proposal is also seen as timely as Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi recently disclosed that the Immigration Department is working with the UNHCR to devise plans on providing training and jobs for refugees in the country. Currently, refugees recognised by the UNHCR are only allowed to work on an unofficial basis by doing odd-jobs.

Commenting on the Government's job training plan, UNHCR representative in Malaysia Michele Manca di Nissa said: "We regard this as a practical and pragmatic way of responding to the refugee situation in Malaysia because there is a need for foreign labour and here are refugees as a readily available source of labour. Unlike economic migrants, refugees do not enjoy the protection of their home countries and cannot return home or be deported."

Engku Ahmad said Mama is willing to provide the training for domestic helpers with the cooperation of the UNHCR.

"We already have a 'Helper' programme to familiarise them with the Malaysian culture and language."

Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies (Papa) president Jeffrey Foo said they are open to sourcing refugees as domestic workers if the security issue is addressed.

"We need to study this carefully as they will be going into Malaysian homes and working with our children. Their lack of official status means that it will be difficult to take legal recourse if anything goes wrong," he said.

Malaysian National Association of Employment Agencies (Pikap) president Datuk Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, said the move to hire refugees would only temporarily resolve the maid shortage, and stressed the need to re-negotiate with source countries like Indonesia and Cambodia.