MALAYSIA - Ms Belinda Kuan gave up a promising career after a long and "frustrating" hunt for a maid ended in failure.
"We got an Indonesian maid in February after applying non-stop for nearly two years," said the 29-year-old mother of two pre-school children.
"Then she quit after two months for no reason."
It is a dilemma facing more and more middle-income Malaysian families whose parents both work.
They are finding it harder to hire foreign maids because fees are rising and Indonesian recruitment firms are shunning Malaysia to find jobs for their better trained workers in more lucrative markets like Singapore and Hong Kong.
Others like Ms Joy Yap, the manager of an IT firm, is upset with having to pay "search" fees of up to RM2,000 (S$775) to agencies to find a maid.
"In short, lots of Malaysians are being cheated due to desperation," she said.
Facing increasingly expensive maids from Indonesia and the Philippines, a Cambodian ban on letting its maids work in Malaysia, and language barriers with Sri Lankan and Vietnamese maids, agencies said the industry has shrunk by nearly 50 per cent since 2009.
So Malaysian maid recruitment agencies are reporting declining incomes, and turning to other sources or closing shop.
"My colleagues are opening spas and restaurants to stay in business," said Ms Fiona Low, a 20-year veteran at the Sri Nadin maid recruiting agency in Kuala Lumpur.
Starting salaries for maids in Malaysia are still driven by the market and can be as low as RM650 despite a RM900 minimum wage policy set by the Malaysian government.
Ms Low said agencies need to "buy" a potential maid's personal information to show their clients.
This costs about RM6,000, and even includes weight, skin colour and ethnic background.
Those in places "like Singapore and Hong Kong can easily pay RM11,000 to RM12,000 per (set of personal data)", she said. "How can we compete?"
Despite a Malaysia-Indonesia agreement to end a 2009 moratorium on Dec 1, 2011, only about 200 Indonesian maids have started work in Malaysia since.
In 2009, Indonesia banned maids from working in Malaysia after reports of abuse. In one of the largest cases to strain relations with Jakarta, some 100 Indonesian maids forced to work without pay for months were rescued in Selangor last December.
Cambodia banned its maids from working in Malaysia in October 2011 after reports of abuse. In May, a couple in Penang were jailed for 24 years for starving their Cambodian maid to death.
Agencies said the market for foreign maids in Malaysia is also shrinking as households turn to doing their own chores, or hiring Indonesian women illegally.
Mr Jeffrey Foo, who heads the Malaysian Association of Foreign Maids Agencies, said: "Either employers do not want to pay too much to hire a maid or they have misunderstandings with her, causing her to run away."
One result of the changing attitudes and rising costs has been a growth of childcare centres.
In fact, the government is providing RM15 million in incentives to set up at least 1,000 more such centres this year to reduce Malaysians' dependence on foreign maids to care for their children.
"Definitely lower maid hiring is helping the industry to grow," said Ms Radziah Daud, head of the National Association of Early Childhood Care and Education.
"But parents must also be willing to pay as demand for centres grows."
Part-time cleaning services are growing too. Mr Norman Chin, who owns Ray K Cleaning Services in Petaling Jaya, said his company added 10 to 40 cleaners in a year.
Malaysian Association of Social Workers president Teoh Ai Hua said the need is growing for trained personnel to care for the elderly too.
"It's a job function that needs to be filled," he said.
As career woman Noorasyikin Nazrol, 36, looks for the "perfect" maid, she relies on friends to look after her three school-going children.
"I pay my neighbour some cash to babysit my children," said the single mother. "Luckily, my retired neighbour likes kids."
But many families still prefer a live-in maid. "Having my own maid that I can trust with my things and children is way better of course," said Ms Kuan.
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