A pilot project to recruit maids from Cambodia is struggling to take off as workers are turned off by high recruitment fees, and the fear of not being able to adapt to life here.
Under a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) pilot scheme that began last August, Cambodian maids are, for the first time, allowed to work in Singapore.
The ministry had set a target of 400 maids to arrive by February but only about 200 are in Singapore now, based on figures from the Cambodian Embassy.
This has prompted MOM to push the deadline to August for Cambodian and Singapore agents to bring in all 400 maids.
But even with the extension, agents here are worried that their Cambodian counterparts will not be able to recruit enough workers.
Singapore maid agents blame the high placement fees of $2,400 that the women pay to Cambodian agents to get jobs in Singapore.
Maid agency Inter-Mares Management Services owner Karl Tan said: "No doubt the maids can earn much more here. But $2,400 is a lot of money to them, as many earn only about $1,000 a year back at home."
Maids earn at least $450 a month here. In contrast, a typical Cambodian factory worker takes home about US$100 (S$125) a month.
High-profile cases of abuse involving Cambodian maids in Malaysia in recent years have also discouraged some of the women from coming here, said agents.
Those cases led to the Cambodian government announcing a temporary ban on maids working in Malaysia in 2011.
This has yet to be lifted.
Meanwhile, Cambodian maid recruiter Lao Ly Hock said he finds it difficult to recruit maids who have attended school for at least eight years, which is a requirement set by MOM.
"If the requirement is lowered to five years of education, we would be able to recruit more maids," he said.
The aim of the MOM pilot scheme, which ends next year, is to see if Cambodia workers are suitable for Singapore households, and if the country can be added to the list of approved sources for maids.
Currently, approved source countries and territories for foreign maids in Singapore include Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
When contacted, Cambodian ambassador to Singapore Cheth Naren said the three Cambodian agents, who include Mr Lao, involved in the project are "confident" of meeting the extended August deadline. He added that about 30 maids will arrive in Singapore in the next few weeks.
Maid agencies here, however, said the three agents have not been responsive to their requests. They suggested that the Cambodian labour ministry allow more Cambodian agents to recruit maids to work in Singapore.
Mr Ronnie Toh, owner of maid agency AC Toh Enterprises, said: "We will have more choices of companies to work with. With more competition, the agents may be encouraged to lower their recruitment fees too."
Last month, Cambodian newspaper The Phnom Penh Post reported that some maids working in Singapore have complained to the embassy here about poor work conditions.
Mr Naren confirmed, in a e-mail statement, that one maid had accused her employer's relative of molesting her. However, she decided not to lodge a police report and has been transferred to a new employer.
He said that, given time, the workers should be able to adapt to life in Singapore and urged employers to be patient.
"Some of the domestic workers are homesick. Allowing them to call home will do wonders for them. They may perform better too," said Mr Naren.