THE comings and goings of Indonesian maids make headline news nowadays.
That is how important they have become in foreign-labour-dependent Malaysia, a fact that ought to somehow embarrass given the real economic turmoil and hardship being endured by nominally richer countries, such as Greece. Nevertheless, the arrival of a first group of 39 women last weekend after a nearly three-year dearth is welcome -- not because of the ending of the ban, but the onset of a new regulatory framework for their employment. The government should be commended for patiently negotiating with an understandably foot-dragging Jakarta to resume the export of its labour into what it calls the "informal" sector. Indonesia wants to formalise the hiring of its nationals into occupations with specific rules. It can no longer put up with the free-for-all of the past, which it claims was open to exploitation.
The Human Resources Ministry's reiteration of regulations on the recruitment of maids across the two countries should remove any remaining hang-ups on the part of its counterparts in Indonesia. Maids are now subject to a narrower job description, entitled to fixed hours and days off, and can even sue under a section of the Labour Act. More avenues have been opened to them to report abuse, with the Labour Department under heavier obligation to keep an eye on their welfare. Although the vast majority of Malaysian employers are all right, the tiny number of black sheep who mistreat their servants can cause great upset back home in Indonesia -- a reality of democratic life that neither the government nor the people here should take lightly. Because the maids will now have to undergo vetting and training, as is done in other labour-exporting countries, their supply will be constricted. Malaysian employers will also have to wait in line behind countries willing to pay more for their care-givers.
Malaysia targets domestic help in the hundreds of thousands. So essential are maids that they take up a lot of government time. So essential are they that the nation risks getting into diplomatic spats over them. The rising cost of hiring overseas maids should focus minds on alternatives, such as the provision of creches and nurseries at the workplace -- a choice which could in the end be preferable given the potentially better care for pre-schoolchildren they offer. As in the developed countries, where social services look after such needs, live-in foreign maids should no longer be regarded as essential. They should become a luxury which few desire or can afford.