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Dealing with a new generation of maids

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 18, 2014

Better pay, a day off every week, and even free access to Wi-Fi - the demands of foreign maids today are a far cry from when Singapore first opened its doors to them some three decades ago.

While an impoverished situation in their home country and a strong Singapore dollar remain the main push and pull factors, maids from the Philippines, Indonesia and even Cambodia now also want an enriching time for themselves while working here.

But while their needs are changing, some Singapore employers seem to be stuck in the past. This puts them in conflict with maids asking for better employment terms and more personal freedom.

The result has been more maids terminating standard two-year contracts early and changing employers.

According to figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), close to six in 10 maids placed by agencies between February 2011 and February last year stayed with the same employer for less than a year.

Singapore agents and maids - there are more than 214,500 here now compared with fewer than 100,000 three decades ago - say it is time for employers here to change their mindsets.

The increasing level of education of maids - most have completed secondary education compared with just primary school 30 years ago - means they are more aware of their rights, and are ready to push for them.

A law providing rest days for maids came into effect on Jan 1 last year. All maids hired or who have their work permits renewed from that date must receive a day off each week, or pay in lieu.

Maids whom The Straits Times spoke to described how much they looked forward to Sundays, when they can socialise with their friends and take a breather.

They admit that when bosses are not willing to offer them rest days, they prefer to look for a more accommodating employer.

Yet, many employers still prefer to pay extra money rather than allow their maids to take a weekly day off.

Employers have to shell out about $70 a month, on top of the basic pay of about $450, to get maids to work on rest days.

Many employers with elderly family members or young children will pay extra, as they find it hard to cope without their maid's help.

But employers can start off by negotiating with their maids for a monthly day off instead of a weekly one. Or, if the maids are needed on weekends, a day off on weekdays can be offered instead.

Some employers also worry that maids will fall into bad company on their days off and run away, putting them at risk of losing the $5,000 security bond.

But maids say employers do not have to worry about runaways if they are treated well.

Some even express disappointment that their employers do not trust them enough even after working for them for years.

"My employer thinks I will meet bad friends when I go out. But why would I want to find trouble? I am here to work and earn money," said 32-year-old Indonesian Purwati, who was given a monthly day off only after working for four years.

Another point of contention is Internet access. Some employers see it as a distraction, and will not share their home's Wi-Fi password with their maids.

Many maids own smartphones and spend up to $50 a month out of their own pockets to top up their pre-paid cards.

But a recent Straits Times report showed more and more foreign workers rely on online means to keep in touch with friends and family at home.

Indonesia's capital Jakarta is also known as "Twitter city", thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones.

Some agents interviewed say they know of maids who will give up their days off in exchange for free Internet access.

They suggest that employers can first observe their maids' work attitude for a few months. If the maids are responsible, employers can offer them the home's Wi-Fi password as a gesture of appreciation.

Given that most maids do not complete their two-year contracts, the reality is that employers have to contend with domestic workers who request for a change of employers.

In this employment climate, agents suggest that employers protect themselves by scrutinising their contracts, and by going for reputable agencies.

Cheap agency fees of as low as $300 may be tempting, but some agents note that low agency fees just mean the agents are recouping the placement fee from the maids themselves - and this can be as high as $4,000.

This means a longer repayment period for maids, and some can go for as long as eight months without any of their monthly salary of about $450 ending up in their own pockets.

These maids can get discouraged and end up quitting.

Another reason employers should be careful about engaging agents who charge low fees is because they often do not offer a refund on the placement fee.

This charge is usually paid upfront by employers on behalf of the maid if she decides to terminate her contract during the loan repayment period.

In short, employers must go through the terms and fine print of the service contracts with their agents to protect themselves.

But beyond safeguarding their own interests, employers should also consider how they can make working in Singapore more enjoyable for their maids.

A balance has to be struck between employers' expectations and the needs of their maids.

Otherwise, more maids will break their contracts, while employers end up paying more money to hire new ones and train them.

ameltan@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 18, 2014

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