More maid abuse cases have been brought to light here in recent years, and a culture of unequal relationships could be one reason it is so difficult to stamp out.
According to the State Courts, there were 26 maid abuse cases filed last year. This is nearly double the 14 filed in 2012, and brings the total number of such cases filed in the past five years to 90.
In past three months, at least five people have been found guilty and sentenced to between two weeks and 15 months in jail. The abuse included slapping, biting and scalding. In April, District Judge Mathew Joseph said while sentencing tutor Low Gek Hong to nine months in jail for repeatedly abusing a 17-year-old Myanmar helper, that such offences had been on an "upward trend" in Singapore.
He said it was in the public interest that the court impose a stiff sentence to deter similar offences.
The Foreign Domestic Workers Association for Social Support and Training (Fast) started a shelter service for runaway maids last month. This was in response to more calls from the public and embassies telling it of maids who needed housing. Its executive director William Chew said two Indian maids were already referred to them by the police. One of them has since returned home, while the other has salary issues and has had her case referred to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
Abused and 'fined' for mistakes
Ms Diana, a 24-year-old Filipino maid, ran away from her employers this year after just three months. The first month with them was okay, she said, but in the second month, her "Ma'am" started to get angry all the time.
By the third month, she was getting physically or verbally abused twice in a week. "Ma'am loved to pull my ear, pull my hair, and pushed me until I fell down," she said, adding that she would also be scolded with vulgar words.
The couple also deducted money from her salary of $550 if she made mistakes. Forgetting to close the windows was a $30 fine. It was $200 for leaving the gas stove on for too long.
From sleeping and eating too little, Ms Diana lost 6kg from her petite 41kg frame. "I felt so ugly, because I was very thin and had so many pimples," she said.
She said she was not allowed to use a mobile phone at home. It was only on Chinese New Year, when she was given a day off and a cellphone to use, that she was able to call her agency back in the Philippines. The agency told her to call the agent in Singapore but she did not know the number.
One day, while her employers were at work, she ran away, even though she had nowhere to go. A Filipino woman she met took her to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home). She now stays at its shelter and volunteers at its office in Lucky Plaza.
The Manpower Ministry was contacted about her salary deductions, and her case officer said there would be a police case as there had been physical abuse.
She has been waiting for four months for the outcome and is currently on a special pass, which is issued when employers cancel the work permits and investigations are ongoing.
In most cases, maids can continue to work if the police do not object or if they join the Manpower Ministry's Temporary Job Scheme, said Ms Valli Pillai, a director at Home.
Ms Diana wants to continue to work here, if only to save up more money before going home.
"Sometimes, the employer is good, sometimes bad, you don't know," she said with resignation. "When you are new, maybe they are good, then after that, their attitude changes."
She said she hopes employers will build better relationships with maids. "Employers must give time for bonding, talk to you about what they want or don't want," she said. "They can treat us like friends or family."
But offering more shelters will not solve the problem, said Mr Chew. "The girls need time to adjust to Singapore and employers need to be educated and patient in helping them adapt," he said.
Non-governmental organisations and domestic helpers told The Sunday Times that a sea change in mindset is what is needed to improve the lot of maids here.
The number of maids has been rising over the years, hitting 222,500 last December, according to MOM's website. "Some still think it is okay to treat domestic workers as subservient," said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home). They are told not to argue with employers and are socially isolated as they seldom get to leave the house.
Myanmar maid Lay Mon, 33, wanted to return home after three months but said her employer owed her two months' salaryand would not let her end her two-year contract. Under the law, employers have to pay maids their fixed monthly salary within a week after the month ends.
Her employers also threatened to complain to the police if she did not complete the contract. "I was scared," she said. She claimed the employer eventually went to the police to allege that she stole $1.50 and touched a child's private parts, but the case has been closed and no charges were brought against her.
She is now at Home's shelter.
A lack of trust can also be a source of conflict. "My employer didn't trust me, she always said she never see me cleaning on the CCTV, so I must be sleeping," said Ms Nicole, a 32-year-old single mother of two from the Philippines.
She worked for the employers' family for 28 months before running away to Home.
While she was working, she was also forbidden from using a mobile phone until 11pm every night, by which time her children would be asleep. So she bought another to keep in touch with her children.
But when her employer found out, she was hit on the head with the phone and slapped.
"She said 'Give me your phone, if not I tell the police you took my diamond ring'," said Ms Nicole.
Ms Valli Pillai, director of casework at Home, said that physical abuse is more common for maids who come from countries where English is less frequently spoken, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, compared with the Philippines and Indonesia. "Language issues make both sides get angry, then there is slapping, pulling hair, throwing things."
But those who seek shelter at the Philippine and Indonesian embassies seem to be getting fewer.
At the Philippine Embassy's shelter, an average of 12 to 18 workers stay at any one time, down from up to 50 three years ago, said the Philippines' labour attache Vicente Cabe. They may have gone to NGOs instead, he said.
Indonesian Embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono said the number of maids staying at the embassy shelter has fallen over the past three years, partly because of better rules such as a higher minimum wage of $500 and lower placement fees.
"Because of the new regulations, more workers live in more steady conditions and get more money in the first eight months," he said.