The Straits Times says

Domestic help for different needs

Indonesia's announcement that it wants its citizens who work as domestic helpers abroad to live apart from their employers is another expression of rising state intervention in this market. Recently, Sri Lanka said it plans to slowly disallow maids from working abroad because of rights abuses and local labour shortages. Hence, Singapore employers will have to take into account possible changes to supply and working conditions even as they demand affordability, convenience and security when seeking domestic helpers.

Live-out maids, for example, would give rise to new issues affecting both families and their helpers. Schedules of everyone may be less flexible, an erosion of trust is possible, and sharing of certain costs like transport, food and external accommodation could be troublesome when a maid lives apart. Safety is another consideration if the helper is entrusted with a front door key by parents who both have to leave for work on the dot. Live-in maids are less likely to compromise a family's well-being and are more reliable when high-dependency care is called for at home.

Any new living arrangements will call for a higher degree of professionalism in the industry to manage the quality and training of domestic helpers as well as the practical issues of living out. If this is embarked on a large scale, centralising the provision of such domestic help may offer greater efficiency, economies of scale and supervision of foreign labour. Loose living-out arrangements between an employer and helper would be risky.

Employers who will benefit from live-out foreign maids are those who require part-time help at a lower cost and who value their privacy at home. But the change may not offer better quality services. One reason many have the services of capable maids is the personal training invested by employers, especially those who see the relationship as a long-term one. Bureaucratising the supply will lead to a more transactional relationship and possibly more instances of job-hopping.

From a larger perspective, one has to weigh the implications of turning the current workforce of 125,000 Indonesian maids here into daily commuters. If more foreign maids live out, the number may swell and place greater demands on the transport system. Importantly, there have to be practical ways of guarding against abuses like overwork, immigration offences and vice. Social changes may also take place that could prove irksome to resolve.

Demand for domestic helpers and caregivers will always persist among families with seniors and dual-income couples with young children. Managing maids within a familial setting has largely worked well, with clear lines of accountability and relatively few cases of egregious abuse. If new circumstances call for the study of different arrangements, these must suit all parties.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'Domestic help for different needs'. Print Edition | Subscribe