Myanmar maids finding it hard here

More are running away from employers; some agents stepping in to smooth transition

Unable to please their employers, more Myanmar maids are giving up and running away, so much so that some agents are trying to improve matters themselves by conducting home visits and training.

A total of 51 maids have sought shelter so far this year at a migrant worker's group, which expects this to continue if employment conditions do not improve.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) sheltered 64 runaway maids from Myanmar last year, 29 in 2011 and 13 in 2010.

The figures reflect the increase in the number of Myanmar women who now come here to work as maids. There are more than 27,000, and more are expected as a shortfall in Indonesian maids persists.

Home chief executive Bridget Tan said many speak very little English and employers find the difficulty in communication frustrating.

Some maids have gone without salaries for as long as eight months while they clear hefty payment fees of $3,200 to $3,360. They are paid $400 to $420 a month, compared with $450 for Indonesians and $500 for Filipinas.

Said Ms Tan: "This should be a wake-up call to both the agents and employers. They must look at treating the workers fairly and also reducing their debt, or more will run away."

Agents here say recruiters in Myanmar are asking for more money, knowing the maids are needed to plug the shortfall. But with Myanmar the most viable new source of domestic help, some agents are taking it upon themselves to help smooth the transition.

One makes regular visits at no extra charge to homes where there are problems and offers special training courses for maids in languages and housework.

Mr J.H. Htay, the director of Striker Employment Agency, said the key stumbling blocks are a poor command of English, cultural differences and the relatively stressful workload here.

Mr Htay, a Malaysian and Singapore permanent resident, goes to the homes of employers who have problems with their maids.

With a Myanmar employee who speaks the language, he tries to deal with the source of the employer's unhappiness. The sessions are often emotionally charged and last one to four hours.

Most women in Myanmar do not work outside their homes and may not be used to having a boss to answer to, he said. The "culture shock" affects them intensely.

"Sometimes, they don't even want to talk. They are completely demoralised," he said.

"I put myself in their shoes and think, wouldn't I feel the same way if I'm in a foreign country and my employer keeps scolding me all the time?"

The maids also attend a training course and Mr Htay may follow up with another visit afterwards to see if things have improved.

This helped banker Abhishek Gupta, 34, who was at wits' end when his new maid could not understand a word he or his wife said.

After a four-day intensive course at Striker, Ms Khaing, 31, could understand simple words and do household chores to her employer's satisfaction.

The Guptas chose a Myanmar maid because their friend employs one and is happy with her.

Mr Gupta said: "My maid still can't form full sentences. But she speaks and understands simple words. It is an improvement from speaking to her and getting a blank stare back."

Employers said it was important to be patient and not expect too much at the start.

Myanmar maids now make up the third biggest group among Singapore's 209,600 domestic workers, after Indonesians and Filipinos.

Unlike those others, the bulk of Myanmar maids come to Singapore without any training, and against the law, as their government forbids them from going overseas to be maids or entertainers.

Many are underage and untrained and find it hard to cope with life here.

Another agent, Ms Anna Tan, the owner of AT Employment Agency, has those facing problems live at her home for about a week to learn how to live and work in a Singapore household.

Ms Tan said the maids learn to adjust to the eating habits of Singaporeans and work to a schedule. She also coaches them in English.

Agents say the extra help does not guarantee a smooth ride but the success rate is promising.

Seven of the 10 Myanmar maids trained and counselled by Ms Tan this year are still with their employers.