Employment agencies in Singapore are calling for domestic workers to undergo professional training here so that they can become skilled workers. This comes after Indonesian President Joko Widodo said last week that the country wants to stop sending its women overseas as maids to preserve the country's "dignity".
Although no time frame for the stoppage has been given, the Indonesian manpower ministry has been ordered to come up with a "clear road map" on when this can take place.
According to estimates by the Indonesian Embassy, there are about 125,000 Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore. The number accounts for about half of all such workers in the Singapore, say industry players. Hence if Indonesia stops sending its women overseas as maids, employment agencies here say the impact could be bad.
The president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), K Jayaprema, said that for the employers, "if we were to lose this source, then we will have a very small pool of alternative workers we are looking at now - who come from Philippines, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India, and in the Philippines we are having our own set of problems at this point in time."
"For the domestic workers themselves, what is going to happen is they're going to lose whatever protection that they have been receiving from the Indonesian government and they will become undocumented workers. They will continue to come in - because there are just too many exit points which they can freely move in from - we're looking at Jakarta, we're looking at Batam and we're looking at Semarang," she added.
The employment agencies added that competing with other countries for a limited pool of domestic workers could also spell higher costs and a longer processing time for employers. The agencies also noted that traditional sources are imposing restrictions to protect their workers. For example, the Philippines plans to introduce a quota system on domestic workers coming to Singapore.
The agencies said finding alternative sources to hire domestic workers will also be a challenge. The owner of Best Home Employment Agency, Tay Khoon Beng, said: "All the traditional sources of supply are thinking of how to better protect their women. At the moment, for example, Myanmar has a ban on all licensed recruiters to send domestic helpers to Singapore. The Philippines has got a quota system now for Singapore, due to unresolved placement fee issues.
"For non-traditional sources, it's very difficult to open up a new market. For example, the Ministry of Manpower has piloted a two-year project on the Cambodian market. In the two years, we are supposed to bring in 600 Cambodian helpers.
"18 months has passed and the pilot group only managed to bring in about 400 Cambodian workers. And I was told that as high as 50 per cent of these Cambodian workers have either left Singapore or changed employers.
"So it takes time to open up a new market and employers may not adapt to the new market as well."
To mitigate the effects of a potential supply cut, Mr Tay suggested implementing a mandatory professional course for these workers. He said: "For Indonesia specifically, they wish to train their helpers to meet the standard we require before exporting them. However, I also see at the moment, they may have difficulties to train their helpers to meet our standard.
"So instead of a bottleneck and allowing the ban to happen, why not they continue to export the unskilled helpers to us and we being an education hub will then work out with the employer to upgrade the skill of all these women so that at the end of the contract, they are fully trained, skilful and can go back to being a better skilled person.
"I think we need employers to understand that this is a new reality. Definitely there will be inconvenience caused to them, in terms of the helpers having to take time off to take courses, and at the same time they have to subsidise many of these skilled courses."
Agencies said other issues like high placement fees also need to be addressed. Currently, the placement fee can range from zero to S$3,000 or S$4,000 - which is equivalent to about eight months of a domestic worker's monthly pay.
Ms Jayaprema said: "We should only recognise the two-month fees that Singapore agencies are allowed to collect from the domestic workers as service fees. So we do not want to allow any of the source cost to be brought to Singapore as placement fee and allow the agencies to collect this on behalf of the foreign agencies, because that's what makes the whole figure looks very large. This will be a better solution."