A recent hike in the cost of recruiting Indonesian and Filipino maids has sparked fresh demand for Myanmar helpers who are cheaper to hire.
Indonesian recruiters have been asking for an extra $700 to $1,000 as commission since earlier this month, said agents here. It bumps up the total fee to almost $4,000.
The reason given is that it is hard to entice the women to leave home with Ramadan coming up next month, as they usually prefer to be with their families during the festive season.
Several agencies here have refused to give in to these demands, slowing the supply of Indonesian maids by as much as 80 per cent in the last month.
To add to the maid crunch, Filipino helpers are more expensive too.
Employers used to pay about $2,500 to hire from the Philippines, most of which they could recoup by deducting from the maids' wages.
The cost has not changed, but the Philippine government wants this debt bondage to end. Bosses are now not allowed to draw back from their helpers.
"I tell my customers, if they do not want to pay more, then they will have to consider Myanmar maids," said Nation Employment managing director Gary Chin, who runs Singapore's biggest maid agency. "We see a steady supply of workers there who are keen to come here."
It costs employers less than $1,000 to hire a Myanmar maid. Such maids are also paid lower wages of about $400 a month, compared with $450 for Indonesians and $500 for Filipinas.
However, agents pointed out that Singapore employers are being charged lower fees for hiring Myanmar workers because the bulk of the recruitment cost is being passed on to the workers.
Many Myanmar maids go unpaid for up to eight months while repaying placement fees of about $3,300.
Many of them become demoralised, leading to a higher rate of runaways, said agents.
About 50 runaway Myanmar maids have been sheltered by migrant worker's group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) so far this year.
Home sheltered 64 runaway maids from Myanmar last year, 29 in 2011, and 13 in 2010.
Homekeeper agency managing director Carene Chin said: "Employers must be prepared to pay more so that the maids' placement fees can be reduced."
However, the chief executive of Home, Ms Bridget Tan, said that recruitment agents are also guilty of jacking up fees and that foreign workers end up with hefty debts.
One such foreign worker agency was recently punished, according to a statement by the Manpower Ministry (MOM) yesterday.
Gateway Employment Agency was convicted and fined $3,000 for collecting excessive agency fees from three China workers.
The firm has also been ordered to pay $6,600 as compensation to the workers, and its licence has been suspended by MOM.