The first male domestic worker from Myanmar has arrived and started work with his new employer on Friday.
Brought to Singapore by local maid agency Homekeeper, 31-year-old Lum Hkawng has already completed a 45-day caregiver course. He also speaks Mandarin, which he picked up from ethnic Chinese friends living in his village in Myanmar's northern Kachin state.
Agents say male domestic workers like Mr Hkawng can perform similar tasks as their female counterparts and more. These include caring for elderly men who are bedridden, which often requires more strenuous work.
While agents say there has been an increase in demand for male domestic workers, plans to bring in more men like Mr Hkawng have hit a snag.
Homekeeper managing director Carene Chin said her agency has received several inquiries, but the potential employers want to wait and see how the workers fare with other employers. "They don't want to be the first to try them out," she said.
Another issue is that some employers are reluctant to wait, because the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) seems to take relatively longer to approve the hiring of these male domestic workers from overseas.
Ms Chin says it took over a month to get approval for Mr Hkawng and she is waiting to hear from the ministry on at least 10 other applications.
She had said in January that Homekeeper planned to bring in about 30 male domestic workers from Myanmar by February.
Agents like Ms Chin say MOM allows employers to bring in foreign male domestic workers only if they have good reasons for doing so. Employers in turn need to send a letter to the ministry explaining their needs.
It takes about a month before the ministry informs employers if their application for their male helper is successful.
Work permit applications for female maids, however, are usually completed within a few days.
Only a handful of maid agencies have recruited men at their customers' request in the past two years.
The Sunday Times was told there are 33 male foreign domestic workers in Singapore. Most of them are Filipinos who are hired to care for elderly men. In contrast, there are 209,600 foreign women working as maids here.
Homekeeper says it is working with Singapore training course provider Grace Management and Consultancy Services, as well as a private school in Yangon, ACM School, to put all these male workers through a 45-day caregiver course.
Conducted at ACM School's premises in Yangon, the sessions equip the workers with knowledge on dealing with the elderly and spotting health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They also learn conversational English and Mandarin, and are taught how to do household chores.
So far, about 40 male domestic workers have completed the course and are waiting to work in Singapore households.
They will be paid $500 a month, slightly higher than the average of $450 which maids earn in Singapore.
Agents say that some Filipino men work as domestic workers for affluent European families who live in sprawling estates. They are in charge of physically strenuous tasks such as gardening and painting the homes.
Ms Chin says she is confident that the take-up rate will improve once employers see that male workers do well here in the specific context for which they are trained.
Account assistant V. Tay decided to hire a male helper for her elderly father-in-law who suffered a stroke a few months ago, after she saw Mr Hkawng training at Homekeeper's office in Hougang earlier last week.
"I spoke to him and found him patient," she said. "My father-in- law is big-sized and he lives alone. It is more convenient for a man to look after him."
Mr Hkawng, who is not married, told The Sunday Times last Friday before leaving for his employer's home that he is a little nervous about his new job.
His employer is a man in his 50s who is partially handicapped after a traffic accident and who lives alone.
The former steel welder who is working for the first time as a domestic worker said in Mandarin: "My employer may get angry with me because he is frustrated but I know I have to be patient. This is my job and I want to do it well to earn money for my family."