In March, a slight hiccup over the “one-maid one-task” ruling put a halt to the long-anticipated return of Indonesian maids into Malaysian homes after a three-year hiatus.
That has since been resolved and last week, the first batch of maids, comprising 29 women from East Java were introduced to their employers at a special ceremony in Kuala Lumpur.
The number is far short of the promised 106, due in part to problems in the recruitment process on the Indonesian side, but it is a good start nevertheless.
Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies president Jeffrey Foo is optimistic that more maids will eventually come to work here, but employers must be patient. “The maids will not flock here overnight,” he said.
The ceremony may appear unnecessary but it heralds a new beginning not only at the diplomatic level between Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, but also a new relationship between the Malaysian employer and his Indonesian employee.
The salaries and terms of employment have changed substantially to guarantee the maids' interests are protected, but the more important issue is still about how the domestic help will be treated in the Malaysian homes.
The feedback from the first few batches of Indonesian maids will speak volumes to the potential maids back in Indonesia as to whether Malaysia should be their country of choice.
At the same time, we must recognize that there are also many horror stories of maids exploiting the employers. In the privacy of the home, it is sometimes difficult to get at the truth.
Ever since the supply of Indonesian maids was frozen on June 26, 2009, Malaysians have had to look to other countries to meet their needs, but there is no denying that Indonesian maids still rank high in terms of preference.
We welcome them back and we must do our part to ensure that we treat them decently as fellow human beings.
The Indonesians, because of their long-standing tradition of being the principal source of domestic help here, are able to organize themselves better and can get their government to articulate their rights.
Employers can no longer take the approach that if these rights are difficult to implement, or if the higher costs will hurt their wallets, then they should just hire those who are cheaper and less demanding.
We must treat all domestic help decently, irrespective of which country they come from. All domestic helpers should do a good day's work for a good day's pay, and not be exploited to do way beyond what they should.
The reality remains that many Malaysian households will probably not be able to function without the domestic helper, and we have to live with the consequences of how the family life has been impacted.
Many children growing up in homes where there is a maid on call 24 hours, seven days a week, do not know how to perform simple household chores. And what about the intangible values that are being passed on to them in their growing-up years?
We must look at how we can change our lifestyles so the running of the household remains primarily with us.
The workplace culture must change to embrace the many technological advancements available today that will allow employees to spend time at home yet remain productive for the employer.
When that time comes, our children will see their fathers and their mothers as their main caregivers, who give them not only material comfort but also spiritual and emotional guidance. And our country will be much blessed because of this.