Believing her Indonesian maid to be 28, Madam Rachel Chan did not think much about her youthful appearance at first.
But a month later, Madam Chan was surprised when the helper confessed she was only 19, despite what was stated on her passport.
It was deja vu two months later, when her "23-year-old" replacement maid from another agency turned out to be 21.
The minimum age to work as a foreign maid in Singapore is 23.
Madam Chan, 29, sent both maids home, believing that she might be penalised for hiring underage maids. The nurse told The Straits Times: "I just needed someone to help care for my children and the home while I was at work."
She lost around $3,000 in fees paid. She said: "I am done with maids - what a waste of time and money."
The issue of underage maids came to light again recently after the father of Myanmar national Zin Mar Oo, who fell to her death at the Interlace condominium on June 12, said his daughter was only 20.
It was like having another child around the house.
MADAM RACHEL CHAN, on an incident where her underage maid was clearly overwhelmed and was sobbing along with her four children.
Other incidents involving teen maids
March 19, 2014
Indonesian Dewi Sukowati, 18, killed her employer, 69, after the woman hit her with a tray and threatened to cut her pay. Dewi first hit the woman's head against a wall and later against a step, then dumped her in a swimming pool, where she drowned. Dewi was later jailed for 18 years.
Nov 24, 2010
A 16-year-old Indonesian maid, who went by one name, Nurhayati, killed her employer's daughter. She flung the 12-year-old physically and mentally disabled girl over a 16th-floor parapet wall to her death. She was later jailed for 20 years.
Nov 30, 2009
Indonesian maid Desi Kurnia, 16, abused her employer's year-old toddler over a five-day period by forcefully pushing the child onto a mattress, slapping her repeatedly on the buttocks and arms, and shaking her violently. She was later jailed for two years.
Mr Tin Shwe, 46, who was then here for his daughter's funeral, said he did not know why his only child's documents showed she was 25.
In response to queries about underage maids, a spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said it takes a "serious view" of the issue and has adopted various measures to check that foreign domestic workers (FDWs) meet the entry requirements and to reduce the incidence of employment agencies bringing them into Singapore.
Said the spokesman: "MOM has made clear to all employment agencies that they are required to check on the age of the FDWs they bring into Singapore. These checks include interviews and examination of the passports, birth documents and educational certificates."
All new FDWs also have to attend a settling-in programme, where they will be taught entry requirements, including the age limit, said the spokesman.
MOM also checks if the agencies are up to par in its regular audits. From 2012 to last year, it has taken to task nine employment agencies that had brought in underage maids.
"Errant employment agencies which contravene these regulations face fines of up to $5,000 and six months' imprisonment. Their licence may also be revoked," said its spokesman.
The issue remains a thorny one for the MOM, which faces calls from advocacy groups to step up its enforcement and calls from agencies to lower the age restriction.
While MOM said there is a low incidence of maids not meeting the age requirement, non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said its research suggests otherwise.
In a survey last year, TWC2 found that 16 of the Myanmar workers polled were under 23 years old on arrival in Singapore, as were 10 of the Indonesians. That was 11 percent of the 232 maids surveyed. They did not find any underage Filipino workers.
Mr John Gee, executive committee member at TWC2, said underage maids cope less well with the challenges of being domestic workers in a foreign country and are less able to stand up for their rights.
In Madam Chan's case, she recalled an incident in which she returned home to find her four young children, aged one to nine, in tears after an argument. Beside them, her first underage maid was clearly overwhelmed and was sobbing along with the children.
"It was like having another child around the house," she said.
Employment agencies told ST that they conduct checks of their own, but the rigour of these checks varies from firm to firm.
Madam Monica Leong, proprietor of Faith Employment Agency, said: "Some of the less reliable agents out there will close one eye, even if they do suspect the maid is under 23. That is why potential employers should always check the agencies' track record on the MOM website."
The main telltale sign is still the maid's appearance as documents can be unreliable or unavailable, said a spokesman for the Maids and Manpower Agency (MMA).
One Myanmar counsellor who conducts English lessons for maids said the underage ones are usually coached to lie about their ages by unscrupulous recruiters in their home countries. The ease of falsifying documents in some countries is why the age limit for maids was raised from 18 to 23 in 2005, said Centre for Domestic Employees chairman Yeo Guat Kwang.
However, this has led Singapore's FDW age limit to become one of the highest in the region. In Malaysia and Taiwan, the minimum age is 21 and 20 respectively.
Said the MMA spokesman: "Twenty-three is a bit too high and has the effect of losing good potential candidates to other countries... But overall, the intention to protect the worker is a good one."