Cambodian maids raring to go

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 22, 2013

At 5am, without any alarm clock going off, a dozen Cambodian maids wake up with near-military precision.

Over the next hour, the women sweep, wash and scrub spotless their two-storey training centre in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

They all want to be maids in Singapore, eager to earn enough to supplement their families' meagre income.

A handful arrived in Singapore homes last week, and about 400 are expected by the end of the year.

Cambodian maids are being allowed into Singapore for the first time, under a Manpower Ministry pilot scheme.

The authorities will monitor how well they adapt to life here and if all goes well, Cambodia will be added to the list of approved sources for maids, joining countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Maid agencies in Singapore said demand for Cambodians has been heating up.

About 40 employers have placed deposits of about $500 each to secure a worker, said Nation Employment's managing director Gary Chin.

"Employers are interested in Cambodian maids because many have experience working in Malaysia," he said.

The women are eager to escape poverty at home. Jobs for women in Cambodia are limited mostly to working in factories or as maids, and both jobs pay barely US$120 (S$150) a month. As maids in Singapore, they can expect at least $450 a month.

The jobs come at a cost though. The women pay $2,400 in placement fees to recruitment agents and expect to clear the debt in instalments over six months.

The women hope that what they earn in Singapore will allow them to buy farmland, renovate village homes and put their younger siblings through school.

Among those heading to Singapore is Ms Mork Banou, 23. The eldest of five children, she went to Malaysia to work as a maid in 2009, speaking almost no English.

Determined to improve, she studied by herself every night, memorising and reading English words aloud. Within three months, she was getting by in English.

One of her most prized possessions is a notebook filled with conversational English phrases which she still reads for an hour before going to bed every night. "If I don't read, I will forget the words," she told The Sunday Times in English.

Ms Chern Sarerb, 26, did not complain when she was given only instant noodles to eat during her first three months working in Malaysia.

"I was so hungry but I told myself I cannot say anything. I did not want to make my employers angry and lose my job," she said.

Many of the women said they managed to save more than $10,000 after their stints in Malaysia.

Ms Thol Sreymach, 26, said she saved $15,000 after working there for four years and it went towards the school fees and living expenses of her four younger sisters. Her parents are too poor to buy their own farmland and do not earn enough doing odd jobs.

She hopes to save even more after she arrives in Singapore later this month. "I want to buy land for my parents. They can grow rice and vegetables to sell and I won't have to worry that they don't have enough food," she said.

But labour activists in Cambodia worry that the women will have problems adjusting to life in Singapore, and that Singapore employers will be frustrated by the women's weak command of English.

Activist Mom Sokchar, who has been helping maids in distress, said communication breakdown was the key problem in several high-profile abuse cases involving Cambodian women in Malaysia in recent years.

That led to the Cambodian government announcing a temporary ban on maids headed to Malaysia in 2011. It has yet to be lifted.

"The life in Singapore is so different from village life. The domestic workers will face difficulties in adapting," said Mr Sokchar.

Another worry is that underage women may try to land a job in Singapore, despite a minimum age of 23 for foreign maids.

Maid recruiter Lao Ly Hock said it is common for workers to use false birth certificates or personal documents of older siblings.

For now, women like Ms Banou are looking forward to their new lives in Singapore. She said she wants her village home to have modern toilets and hopes to send her younger siblings to university.

"Working in Singapore will help my family get a better life," she said.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 22, 2013

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