Employers are concerned that a new rule barring them from holding their maid's money for safekeeping may result in domestic workers getting into financial strife.
The new rule takes effect from Jan 1, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Sunday.
Employers found guilty of holding a maid's cash, including her salary, can face the maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and 12 months' jail.
The MOM said the new rule will protect maids and employers from money-related disputes. It received about 600 complaints a year regarding maids' salary issues in the past three years.
A Straits Times straw poll of 25 employers of maids found that 14 did not hold on to the money for safekeeping.
Most of those who did so said the arrangement was initiated by the maid or was a mutual agreement.
A housewife who wanted to be known only as Mrs K. Ong, 44, told The Straits Times yesterday: "I'm not against this new rule, but the current arrangement is at my helper's request."
Mrs Ong said she advised her maid to keep the money in a bank account but the helper felt more reassured knowing the funds were kept in the house.
Trouble with safekeeping arrangements
The Ministry of Manpower cited three problems that resulted from safekeeping arrangements between employers and maids.
Employer unable to pay due to unforeseen circumstances
A maid who had been working with her employer for more than two years had accumulated $11,000 under a safekeeping arrangement.
However, when the maid was ready to take back her money, the employer was having financial difficulties and could not put together the sum on short notice. Both were distressed as they did not expect such a situation. The employer had to pay the maid back in instalments.
Difficulty getting money after employer falls into coma
A maid had a safekeeping arrangement with her employer to keep $100 out of her $600 salary every month.
The employer later fell into a coma and the maid cared for her in hospital, but she had difficulty retrieving around $2,000 that was owed to her.
She managed to get the money back through various help channels, but the experience caused her some stress.
Dispute due to poor record-keeping
A maid and an employer who had a safekeeping arrangement could not agree on the amount kept because the employer had not maintained proper salary records.
With the Manpower Ministry's assistance, the employer returned $2,000 to the worker. The employer was also cautioned for not keeping a proper record.
She said: "My maid trusts me and I trust her, so that is what makes the arrangement work."
Dr C. Tan, 44, a general practitioner, keeps her maid's salary as she does not want the helper to lose it or spend it unwisely.
Dr Tan said: "Perhaps MOM can make the employer and employee sign some agreement if the maid requests (the employer) to keep (her salary)."
Maids like Indonesian Ismonah Sunareri, 49, said she prefers her employer to keep her salary as it prevents her from overspending.
Some employers raised concerns that if they did not keep salaries, some maids might turn to licensed moneylenders or loan sharks if they spend all their funds. They also warned that some maids would not save their money and would return home empty-handed.
However, employers also acknowledged that the new rule did have its upsides.
Mrs Ong said: "It's less of a hassle if I don't keep her salary. I won't have to keep taking the money out when she asks for it."
Maid agencies advocate that maids manage their own funds.
Island Maids director Gabriel Ee said his agency advises employers to get a bank account for their maids and pay their salaries electronically.
"Keeping salaries used to be prevalent in the past, but younger employers are usually receptive to opening a bank account for their maids," he added.
Mr Ee said the new rule will help maids and employers avoid unnecessary salary disputes.
He also pointed out that maids are adults who should ultimately be responsible for their own funds.
The new rule is good news for Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
Its manager of advocacy and communication, Ms Stephanie Chok, said maids will now have direct access to their money and salary.
But she said safeguards should be in place to protect maids who report employers who continue to keep their salaries.
She also addressed employer concerns that maids lacked financial literacy. "If you think your domestic worker will benefit from a financial literacy course, then you should support her in doing so."