Mental health test for maids mooted

Singapore bound trainee maids learning basic household chores in the PT Devipengayom Bangsa training centre in Pati, Indonesia. The Indonesian Embassy in Singapore is calling for psychological testing of maids before they arrive here, in a bid to rai
Singapore bound trainee maids learning basic household chores in the PT Devipengayom Bangsa training centre in Pati, Indonesia. The Indonesian Embassy in Singapore is calling for psychological testing of maids before they arrive here, in a bid to raise the quality of workers. -- ST FILE PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The Indonesian Embassy in Singapore is calling for psychological testing of maids before they arrive here, in a bid to raise the quality of workers.

Embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono told The Sunday Times that discussions on this issue with Indonesia's government body overseeing the deployment of foreign workers began late last year and are ongoing.

The push for such testing comes after recent high-profile murder cases involving maids in Singapore and elsewhere, he added.

Indonesian maids Nurhayati and Tuti Aeliyah were charged with the homicides of their employers' daughters in 2010 and late last year respectively.

"We learnt from some of the maids' murder cases especially, not just here but also in the Middle East and Malaysia, and we think that implementing psychological tests could go towards preventing such acts," said Mr Sukmo.

Indonesians make up about half of Singapore's foreign domestic worker (FDW) population, which numbers more than 211,000. There have been at least 16 reported homicide cases involving maids since 2002, and 12 of them are Indonesian.

Mr Sukmo, a lawyer by training, believes "the primary reason for these acts is mental, mostly depression", followed by underage issues and problems with employers. But weeding out potential criminals would only be a by-product of psychological testing.

Mr Sukmo said such testing would also help Indonesian agencies determine whether candidates are suited for the demanding nature of maids' work, carried out in foreign lands and strangers' homes, and often comprising caregiving for children or the elderly.

Improved selection procedures would, in turn, raise the quality of Indonesian maids coming here, and put the embassy in a better position to seek an increase in maids' minimum wage later this year, he said.

Indonesia made rule changes in 2012 to ensure its maids are paid at least $450 a month.

The plan is to begin psychological testing first for maids coming to Singapore, then extend it to those heading to other places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia.

The embassy's push has won the support of several other industry stakeholders here.

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) requires maids to pass a medical examination before issuing them with work permits, but the exam mainly screens for infectious diseases. Psychological testing is not a key component.

"Given the different reasons employers have for engaging an FDW, it is impractical to prescribe a comprehensive standard for medical fitness," an MOM spokesman told The Sunday Times. "Employers are also free to send the FDW for any other suitable tests before commencing with employment of the FDW."

Mr William Chew, executive director of the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training, supports having one more layer of screening. "Everybody benefits," he said. "You want to make sure the FDW coming here has the right mindset and mental health to do a job like this."

Mr Edmund Pooh, managing director of maid agency Universal Employment Agency, favours such testing but is concerned about how the additional costs would be distributed. He suggested keeping the cost low to encourage the practice of testing. He also urged the MOM "to implement regular feedback sessions" with maids after arrival as their mental health could change under the stresses of the job.

Psychologist Anja Wessels, lead investigator for an FDW mental health survey here, cautioned that testing would not be a foolproof measure to prevent criminal acts but was "a step in the right direction".

"When looking at mental health, there are several adverse factors. Beyond genetics, there are also poverty and low education levels," she said.

"Compared with FDWs of other nationalities, those from Indonesia tend to be less educated and of poorer backgrounds, hence more pre-disposed to these risk factors."

In addition, a significant number of Indonesian maids come here without being vetted, said Mr Sukmo. The Indonesian Labour Ministry records showed last year that about 30 per cent or 36,000 of the 120,000 Indonesian maids in Singapore were directly hired by employers who did not engage agents.

MP Zaqy Mohamad, a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Manpower, said psychological testing is "definitely worth considering, especially as it would give employers peace of mind".

hpeishan@sph.com.sg

 

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