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  • Elaine Sim

How to reduce worker runaways in the domestic helper (maid) industry

In the domestic helper industry, runaway or abscondment is the biggest concern of hiring employers. There are many theories as to why workers abscond, but it is largely an agent problem.


The demand for domestic helpers remain strong as Asia is ageing and the preference for elderly parents to live in the comfort of a three generational household is still the norm. The lack of consistency in long term early childcare providers also leads many young couples to still opt for a live in helper as a preferred childcare option.


The supply of domestic helpers has shrunk, in part due to increased wealth in source countries, but also largely due to the nature of the job (long and undefined hours or job scope) and the bad reputation of agents in this industry.


Poor agency practices


It is common for the process of recruitment to lack transparency, to facilitate larger volumes of placements. Very little personalization is afforded. Workers are trained to say yes to everything, with little regard for their personal preference. Due to this practice, it is hard for employers to identify suitable candidates for their household.


In addition to this, there are also many illegal and unregulated activities whereby many persons will claim to be recruitment agents and put employers and workers at risk for their own profitable gain. For example, a typical scam would be where an agent and a worker work together to repetitively do placements with unsuspecting employers only to abscond once the warranty period has expired.


Lastly, double charging is also a common practice. In Malaysia, many agents will charge employers a high placement fee, and still charge workers a high fee through salary deductions. Some agents will justify this by telling employers this is how we make workers appreciate their job. But for any employment context, this logic does not hold true. Workers want good jobs, and jobs where they are earning.


How we can change this?


Job transparency is key in cross border employment. Workers need to know who their employers are and what jobs they are offered to make an informed decision about whether the job suits them. Employers need accurate information about candidates to decide whether their skills and experience fits the household needs.


Compliance with government regulations and following proper procedures to bring workers to Malaysia is also key. Agents who advocate illegal processes are also less likely to be informed or be held accountable when services are not performed to a reasonable standard. This puts both employers and workers at risk.


Lastly, it is important that workers are informed of applicable recruitment fees. There are jobs that workers are willing to pay for. Domestic helper jobs are usually free, because the applicants also tend to come from poorer backgrounds. If a worker is required to pay fees upon arrival to their destination country, desperation may drive them to find another job, albeit illegally, to avoid extreme financial hardship.


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