Fewer Indonesian maids in Singapore running away

Indonesian maids watching television at the Indonesian Embassy's shelterfor runaway maids. Most of the maids in the shelter today are there not so much by choice but because they are owed salaries by their employers, or are involved in police cases i
Indonesian maids watching television at the Indonesian Embassy's shelterfor runaway maids. Most of the maids in the shelter today are there not so much by choice but because they are owed salaries by their employers, or are involved in police cases involving matters such as abuse.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

More feeling motivated to stay with changes to salary rules

Indonesian Embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono cannot help but grin when he sees the rows of empty beds in the embassy's shelter for runaway maids.

For the first time in years, the shelter, which has space for about 150 women, is not full. The reason, says Mr Sukmo, is pay.

In the past, maids got as little $10 a month during the first year of work - their salaries cut to repay employers who had to shell out over $3,000 to cover fees that the maids owed agents in Indonesian and Singapore.

The Indonesian government made changes to this practice last year, and maids now get at least $170 a month while paying off their loans. They take bank loans instead of getting employers to make an upfront payment, and can clear their debt within eight months.

The new rules also ensure that maids from the country are paid at least $450 a month. Agents' fees have also been cut to about $2,200, after reducing commissions charged by recruiters.

However, there have been hiccups. The Straits Times reported last year that some Indonesian middlemen ask for "under the table" money. This cost is passed on to maids, leading to higher debt. The changes have also seen higher agency fees for employers, who are now paying about $1,600, up from about $600 before.

Mr Sukmo said Jakarta will blacklist Singapore and Indonesian maid agencies which flout the rules. But he believes that the maids are happier because of the changes. He said: "I think more maids are now motivated to work out their problems with their employers instead of running away."

As recently as last year, most of the maids in the shelter claimed they ran away because they could not get along with the employer.

But when probed by Mr Sukmo, the women revealed that they had felt unmotivated, because they had to wait for over a year before saving enough money to send home to their family.

Today, most of the maids in the shelter are there not so much by choice but because they are owed salaries by their employers, or are involved in police cases involving matters such as abuse.

Since January this year, the embassy, which runs the biggest shelter for Indonesian maids here, has sheltered an average of 100 to 120 maids each month. The number has dropped to around 50 this month, partly because of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Agents and Indonesian maids agree that the policy changes have gone a long way in increasing motivation. Ms Fatmahiroh, 25, who came to Singapore in May to work as a maid said: "I am happy I will be able to save about $1,000 after working for about six months, and I can send the money home."

Best Home Employment Agency owner Tay Khoon Beng told The Straits Times that more maids are approaching the firm for help in resolving problems with their employer, instead of running away. Mr Tay said: "Previously, they would feel there was no point in trying harder since they had to wait nearly a year before they can send money home."

Ms Bridget Tan, chief executive of foreign workers' group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said the number of Indonesian maids sheltered by her organisation has held steady at about 20 maids a month for the past year.

Still she feels that even the $2,200 agent's fee Indonesian maids pay needs to be cut further.

"That is a lot of money for someone earning so little. Employers should be willing to pay more of the recruitment cost so that the maids can pay less."

ameltan@sph.com.sg