|Filling the maid void|
| WITH the Indonesian moratorium on domestic workers, Cynthia Fernandes had no choice but to hire a Cambodian domestic worker when her mother's health deteriorated.|
And for the first three months, Fernandes almost had a nervous breakdown.
"I was already worried sick about my mom and my maid kept making mistakes. She could not speak or understand English well, even though the agent insisted that she had been trained, so there was a lot of misunderstanding, yelling and hair pulling - my own, of course," she recalls.
Now, says Fernandes, she will only hire a Cambodian maid if she can.
"Only if they are like my maid now - she is hardworking and has a gentle personality."
Following the void left by the freeze on Indonesian maids, Cambodia has been given a baptism of fire in trying to meet the current maid shortage in the market.
According to former Malaysian Association of Foreign Maid Agencies (Papa) president Datuk Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, the industry has been left in "dire straits" since the Indonesian government halted the supply of maids in July 2009.
On average, he highlights, around 6,000 to 7,000 maids a month are needed to meet demands here and get replacements.
The Cambodians get job training and attend English and Malay language classes for about three months in their homeland before they are sent to Malaysia. However, language remains a crucial barrier.
As Cambodian Ambassador Princess Norodom Arunrasmy explains, most of the girls sent over to Malaysia as domestic workers are recruited from the villages and only the local Khmer language is taught in school.
"If they want to learn English, they can take private class that is available through the country but not every youth is keen to learn or can afford the private tuition," she says.
Most come with no knowledge of English, so the young women recruited learn English only before they come to Malaysia. Many then struggle at first.
The problem is intensified if the Cambodian girl has not received basic schooling or does not know how to read and write.
"If the maid knows how to read and write Khmer, an English-Khmer dictionary is quite helpful and most agents would hand this out to the employer, but it is unfortunate indeed for those who don't read and write," Princess Norodom adds.
Hence, patience is important, she says.
"Communication is more of a barrier when no patience is shown by the employers. These girls took a big step coming to a foreign land and being far away from family. Perhaps they have never worked in their life before, and also have not been properly trained. So everything here is new, learning is a must, and patience too," she adds.
Unfortunately, argues Raja Zulkepley, there are many Malaysian employers who are not patient or considerate.
"We have to be a bit more understanding and give them a hand. Many are eager to learn and can master basic English in at least three months."
Teacher Susan Leong agrees.
Leong, who had a Cambodian maid, says that the initial months was a challenge in communicating the tasks to her maid.
"It took me extra patience to get started. My family needed a maid and we had no choice but to hire a Cambodian maid," she shares.
After the first few months, things began to get better, she adds.
Michelle Tan also believes that if Malaysian employers can be patient, they will be satisfied by the Cambodian domestic worker's work quality.
The businesswoman first hired a Cambodian helper eight years ago, even before the moratorium.
"I've always had two maids, so I try to hire different nationalities to prevent them from ganging up on me or working together to run away."
It was an eye opener. Like Fernandes, Tan also had communication problems.
"In the beginning, I really felt like killing her because she could not understand what I was saying," she jokes, before adding: "When I asked her to bring me some onions, she'd stare at me blankly, and then bring me the knife. When I say 'Mop the floor', she'd also just stare at me blankly. I had to literally show her what I meant, if I want her to do it. Like 'wipe the table' or 'sweep the floor'."
She realised how hard it must have been for her maid when her husband pointed out to her, "How can she learn English in three months? If she can do that, she won't be a maid."
"I realised how true that is, and started to be more patient," she says.
It took Tan some six months to get her Cambodian domestic worker to be able to communicate in English and get acclimatised to Malaysia, and according to her, this is a sentiment shared by many of her friends.
"They all struggle with their maids at first but many say that after six months, their Cambodian maids improve. And many are happy with their work."
Domestic worker agent S. Low feels that Cambodian maids are popular with employers because of their attitude.
"Many are eager to learn and are usually self-disciplined. Many will learn English on their own so that they can communicate better with their employers," she says, adding that there are employers who teach them Malay and Chinese here.
Princess Norodom concurs.
"Those who have completed their contract left Malaysia with not only English but the Chinese language as well. So, it all depends on employer and employee," she adds.
According to Low, another reason for the popularity of Cambodian maids is their work rate.
"Many are hardworking. The culture is also not so different, so many have no problems fitting in at their employers' homes," she adds.
When CC Lim first hired her maid, she was worried as her maid did not have basic education and could not read or write.
"I almost sent her back. Luckily, she was eager to learn and knew a smattering of Chinese. And more importantly, she could do housework," she says.
Raja Zulkepley concedes that many of the women who are recruited lack book knowledge.
"But all you need to do good housework is common sense, and many of them are mature and level headed because of their more difficult life over in Cambodia," he says.
When it comes to processing time and salaries, all say that they are comparable. In fact, the salary for Cambodian maids (about S$249) is slightly higher than what was paid to Indonesian maids (S$228) previously.
For Tan, the reason is their reliability.
"I prefer Cambodian maids because there are not many Cambodian migrant workers here, so they cannot socialise so much and this reduces the likelihood of them running away or even misbehaving."
Papa's current president Alwi Bavutty says their discipline record is a bonus point for the Cambodians. Papa deputy president Jeremy Foo agrees.
"Employers have told us that this is one aspect that they are most happy with about Cambodian maids."
The rising demand may soon change this, Raja Zulkepley opines.
"There is now a growing number of Cambodians in Malaysia, so soon they will start contacting each other and socialising. My own agency is recording a growing number of runaway cases," he cautions.
The biggest problem now, he says, is that there is not enough manpower to be recruited to work as domestic workers in Malaysia.
Raja Zulkepley concurs.
"Cambodia has a small population, not like Indonesia," he says.
A group of industry players recently submitted a memorandum to the Government to push them to decrease the age requirements for Cambodian maid from 21 to 18 years.
Raja Zulkepley says the lowering of the age limit is greatly needed.
"We already have the green light from our Cambodian counterparts, including the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training in Cambodia expressing their eagerness to lower the age requirements of maids," he adds.
If approved, this will see another 10,000 to 15,000 additional maids to help address the shortage.
While the reaction to this is mixed, there are many employers like Tan who thinks it is a good idea.
"I'd prefer an older maid but if we really cannot recruit any other domestic workers, I'd hire an 18-year-old," she says.
As Foo puts it, if the Government does not consider their proposal to lower the age of domestic workers from Cambodia, they will not be able to meet the needs of Malaysian families and this will create a lot of problems.
Raja Zulkepley agrees. "We have had requests for domestic workers from Myanmar but their government does not allow their women to work overseas. Other countries like Vietnam and Thailand are not very interested in having their citizens going over to Malaysia to work as domestic workers.
"If we cannot lower the age of Cambodian domestic workers to 18, we won't know where else to source for maids to work for Malaysian families," he says.