SINGAPORE - Ms Poe Ei San, 25, a Myanmar migrant, could not find work as a nurse in Singapore, so she cleaned homes instead.
Every day, the Yangon University graduate washes toilets, scrubs floors and wipes down kitchens. "Because of the low pay and instability in Myanmar, many young people look for jobs overseas," she said.
Ms Poe is among a small but growing number of home cleaners under the Household Services Scheme (HSS), a five-year-old programme that allows companies to hire migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka to provide part-time cleaning services to households.
HSS is primarily designed to meet the demand for part-time help and, by extension, reduce Singapore's reliance on live-in foreign domestic workers.
Singapore's maid population grew by about 40 per cent in the past decade, and there were more than 250,000 maids in the Republic as at 2018. "It is not sustainable for the population of foreign domestic workers to grow unchecked," the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) had said.
Over the years, Singapore's 1.4 million households have come to depend heavily on maids for chores, cooking and caring of the elderly, children and pets. These maids come mostly from poorer Asian countries and do not enjoy the same pay and privileges given to Singaporean workers.
The HSS, by formalising domestic work, gives cleaners better pay and rights which maids currently do not have.
An alternative role
Amid a maid shortage caused by tightened borders due to Covid-19, Singapore will on Wednesday make the HSS permanent and expand its scope beyond house cleaning to include more part-time services, such as grocery shopping, car-washing and pet-sitting, MOM said last Monday.
It will also allow firms to hire cleaners from Cambodia under the scheme. HSS cleaners now serve more than 10,000 households.
Former maids from Myanmar comprise 90 per cent of cleaners on Helpling, an HSS cleaner booking platform used by around 40 companies on the scheme, said managing director Zhong Jingjing.
Mr Dominic Lim, sales and marketing manager of cleaning firm Fresh Cleaning, said there is good awareness among the Myanmar community of the cleaner job as an alternative to being a maid.
Myanmar is a significant source of maids for Singapore.
Unlike maids, HSS cleaners serve multiple homes, live in their own accommodation and are protected under the Employment Act, which dictates a maximum of 44 working hours a week, at least 1.5 times overtime pay, seven days' annual leave, 14 sick days and a rest day a week.
Maids are governed under regulations that call simply for "acceptable" accommodation and "adequate" rest. MOM, which declined interviews, said on its website that it is "difficult to enforce the terms of the Employment Act for domestic workers as they work in a home environment and the habits of households vary".
Experts say the side benefits of the HSS are higher salaries, stronger protections and a lower chance of abuse of cleaners than maids. But these benefits are limited by the small number of cleaners, which Helpling's Ms Zhong estimates at just 1,000 to 2,000.
There are no official statistics.
Furthermore, the HSS does not address perceptions of migrant workers as inferior and of domestic work as lowly, which are core reasons behind domestic worker abuse. As a result, cleaners, just like maids, are still at risk.
As at 2019, one in five Singapore households employed a maid, up from about one in 13 three decades ago. For the nation's largely dual-income families, maids are a popular way to outsource household duties so that women can work.
But tightened border controls brought about by Covid-19 have restricted maid inflow and caused an uptick in demand for part-time cleaning, four cleaning companies interviewed said. According to MOM, the number of companies on the HSS has jumped from 50 in 2019 to 76 this year.
Helpling's clientele used to be expat-heavy, but is now mainly Singaporean, particularly younger families living in Housing Board flats in newer estates like Punggol and Choa Chu Kang.
Another cleaning firm, United Channel Construction & Facility Services, whose clients are mostly condominium dwellers, said some customers book cleaners as often as five days a week. The firm, which also runs a maid agency specialising in Myanmar maids, said several customers who hired part-time cleaners while waiting for maids to be available have since become converts. They like having their homes to themselves, without needing to allocate food and board for an additional person, said manager Flora Sha.
But while the pandemic has bumped up demand for part-time cleaning, most companies agreed this will end once borders open and maids return, effectively halting any potential that the scheme could improve domestic worker welfare at scale.
Already, a pilot scheme to raise the supply of maids has been launched; the first batch of over 100 maids was set to arrive here this month. Some 2,000 households have expressed interest.
Cleaning firm A1 Facility Services' operations manager Tan Hui Bin said raising maids' salaries could be an effective way to maintain demand for HSS cleaners, as the price difference would be smaller. Companies offer part-time home cleaning at around $20 to $25 an hour, with slots ranging from two to eight hours.
While maids have a fixed salary, cleaners' salaries comprise basic pay, allowances for food and transport, overtime pay and incentives. As a result, their total pay can be double or triple that of a maid's.
A weekly three-hour home cleaning package comes to around $240 to $300 a month, while a full-time maid costs about $450 to $650 a month to employ, excluding levy.
A spokesman for welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) said there is "no way" HSS cleaners can replace maids, as Singaporeans are "accustomed to enjoying help from domestic workers in multiple roles - babysitting, pet sitting, cooking, housekeeping, car cleaning - for a very low fee". Singapore's median household income last year was $7,744 a month.
Though unintended, one major benefit of the HSS model is the lower risk of abuse. Law experts and welfare groups said the scheme eliminates the live-in factor that leaves maids vulnerable to abuse, as they can be isolated and denied access to a phone.
Lawyer Amarjit Singh Sidhu, who handles maid abuse cases, said cleaners have more interaction with society, which provides more opportunities to report abuse.
Living separately from the families they work for results in fewer opportunities for ill-treatment and abuse of cleaners, said Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan. With a clearer distinction between their residence and place of work, the rights, welfare and interests of cleaners can be better safeguarded, he added.
Maid abuse in Singapore has been in the spotlight in recent years following a series of high-profile cases, the latest being the death of 24-year-old maid Piang Ngaih Don. Between 2017 and 2020, there were about 270 police reports of maid abuse every year.
It is a job hazard which Ms Poe, the university graduate, is well aware of, having read the news in February of Ms Piang's death. The maid endured 14 months of torture and starvation - she was burned, beaten and choked, lost 15kg, and on her final nights slept on the floor chained to a window grille.
Ms Poe was working as a waitress at a hotel in central Myanmar and making plans to get a job in Singapore when she saw the headlines. "I didn't want to be a maid after that," she said. "Nobody will know if your employer bullies you."
But despite improved working conditions, HSS cleaners are still subject to unscrupulous employers, Home's spokesman said. The organisation helps about 10 to 20 cleaners a year on issues like overwork and not receiving salaries.
Abuse of domestic workers and cleaners stems from attitudes that devalue domestic work and see migrants as inferior, she added.
"Many employers feel migrant workers should be grateful that they're getting a job. There's a sense of ownership of the worker," she said. "Abuse arises because employers devalue both domestic work and the domestic worker."
Cleaning firms interviewed said they have not seen cases of physical abuse, though some say verbal abuse happens. There are about 700 customers on Helpling's blacklist for abusive behaviour and failure to pay bills, while United Channel said 30 per cent of customers shout at cleaners.
Due to their reduced isolation, cleaners may experience less abuse than domestic workers, Home's spokesman said. But one way to eradicate abuse is to dignify household work.
To do this, people must see the value of such work in helping society run smoothly. Amid the maid shortage, some Singaporeans have realised how dependent they are on their domestic workers, she added.
MOM said it will assess if the scope of services for the HSS can be further expanded in the future.
Earlier this year, then Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who is now Minister for Communications and Information, said caregiving could be one such service - but there are concerns from some quarters about the risk of abuse.
Association of Women for Action and Research president Margaret Thomas said domestic workers taking care of the elderly are often overworked and vulnerable to abuse from their charges, especially those with dementia.
Ms Sha, United Channel's manager, said these dementia patients can be violent, throwing things and pulling caregivers' hair.
Despite these warnings, Ms Poe is excited about the possibility of caregiving gigs. She still dreams of becoming a nurse in Myanmar, and hopes some caregiving experience will help her secure a job at a hospital when she returns home.
"I know the elderly might abuse me, but I'll be patient with them. Under the HSS, the company is responsible for staff, so I'm confident it's still better than being a maid."
- The writer is a freelance journalist.
- This story has been supported with funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.