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ACCORDING the Indonesian embassy, there are 300,000 Indonesian maids working in Malaysia. According to Deputy Human Resources Minister Datuk Maznah Mazlan, Malaysia needs some 200,000 domestic helpers. Whichever figure you choose to look, it is an alarming one.
And we should be alarmed because this shows that as an economy, we do not have the domestic resources to fill that sector.
The fact that we cannot find Malaysians to work as maids is a problem that must be dealt with immediately. It is about time our long-term dependence on foreign sources be checked and replaced with a national framework outlining policies to overcome this critical problem.
The Indonesian government has already put up some resistance in the recruitment of their nationals to work as maids in Malaysia. Their justification is the reported cases of maid abuse which, while shocking, are not rampant.
A moratorium on sending Indonesian maids to Malaysia was imposed in 2009 following reports of such abuses. Following negotiations between the two governments, recruitment was to have resumed in December last year. Now, officials say they will only be arriving next month after undergoing mandatory training.
It was reported that Indonesia is drawing up a road map towards reducing the number of its citizens working as domestic helpers abroad; that by 2017, it will be brought down to almost zero.
Without any sort of solid preparation on our side, we will be in deep trouble.
The brutal truth is that Malaysia is facing a problem of most developed countries -- severe shortage (or none at all ) of manpower in the labour sector.
Malaysians can now afford not to take on menial jobs which have for a long time been the mainstay of foreigners from impoverished villages in neighbouring countries.
More importantly, the role of women as traditional providers of care for the family has evolved in the last three decades. Women have been a key part of our workforce that is instrumental in our socio-economic growth.
Family structures have changed with more women having joined the labour market, either through choice or necessity, which means that households with both spouses at work need domestic help to either care for their children or their aging parents, or both.
Let's cut to the chase and see the issue for what it really is -- that the maid issue is an issue of childcare because most households that are in need of maids are working parents with children who need care and supervision. In many cases, too, they need care for elderly parents.
We know of cases of female co-workers who are faced with "emergencies" when they are not able to find a nanny or a babysitter to care for their children.
In most developed countries, and Malaysia is really already there in many ways, there are facilities and programmes in place to provide a favourable support system for families, in particular, working mothers and families.
Studies have shown that where childcare services have been integrated into a framework that involves local authorities, NGOs and even trade unions, the benefits are tremendous for families, society and the economy.
There is an urgent need to reconcile the labour shortage and urgent need for childcare before it is too late and becomes a problem too huge to overcome.
Certainly, all stakeholders -- the government (including local councils and authorities), employers, employees, NGOs and trade unions -- need to work towards developing a policy for long-term solution.
There are success stories in many developed countries where childcare facilities and support system are regulated to benefit employers and employees.
The government in 2009, offered double tax relief and a 10 per cent reduction per annum for 10 years to encourage companies to set up daycare centres for their employees' children. The reality is not many companies have taken up that offer.
Governments in a number of countries, such as Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, specifically encourage and help employers to provide some form of childcare support, in some cases backed by incentives.
In my opinion, to make it happen, there should be a combination of incentives and legislative pressure in the provision of such services.
For instance, besides creches in workplaces, childcare centres, child-minder or nanny services should be made available in housing areas as part of the framework of national policies, or even local government policies or regulations.
With policies covering childcare, it will also benefit the low-income groups, who form a big part of the labour market. Access to affordable, good-quality childcare goes beyond the welfare of individual children and their families because it works favourably in the social and economic development of the whole society.
Among the societal benefits of childcare are promoting gender equality and the rights and development of children as well as contributing to the national economy. In fact, well-structured childcare support policies can pay for themselves: without support, parents can face a more difficult time participating in the labour force, which can lead to "higher welfare expenditure, lost tax revenues, inhibited growth and wasted human capital.
According to studies, in the European Union, childcare is recognized as a critical factor in meeting its goal of full employment and a concrete way of eliminating barriers to women's participation in the labour market. As a result, at the Barcelona summit in 2002, EU governments set childcare targets for the year 2010: 33 per cent coverage for children under 3 and 90 per cent coverage for children between 3 years and compulsory school age.
In the labour market, men also benefit from childcare support. Childcare not only increases women's access to employment, but also increases employment opportunities in childcare, and contributes to job creation in the service sector to replace some of the unpaid household work, such as cleaning and food preparation.
One estimate of the job creation effects on women's employment is that 10 jobs are created for every hundred additional women in the workforce.
According to research, in most industrialised countries, there has been an increase in employment in childcare. In the Netherlands, the childcare sector has evolved since 1990 from a small sector with 8,000 employees into a mature sector employing more than 60,000 employees in 2003.
Indeed, we should be alarmed. We need to rethink our priorities with regards to recruitment of foreign workers, in particular domestic maids, where there is a practical and working alternative. But it needs time to be developed and to be implemented.
We need to be innovative. We need to be serious and committed in finding long-term workable solutions. The longer we do nothing, the bigger and more critical the situation becomes. The time is now.