Maid agencies, prospective employers suffer fresh blow with new border entry curbs

The agencies say relying on transfer maids in Singapore is not feasible as their numbers are very limited. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Already struggling with a shortage of foreign domestic workers because of the Covid-19 pandemic, employment agencies and potential employers here have been dealt another blow by the latest restrictions on entry for work pass holders.

On May 7, the Manpower Ministry announced that all new entry approvals for work pass holders from countries with higher risk of Covid-19 will be halted.

The arrival dates of some work pass holders who had received approval previously are also being rescheduled.

The higher-risk countries include Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, all three of which provide the bulk of Singapore's domestic workers.

Ms K. Jayaprema, president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), said: "The news came as a shock to us, as business was just beginning to recover in phase three (of the reopening)."

She added that about 10 per cent of the 300-plus employment agencies in the association have folded in the past year or so.

There are about 900 agencies which actively deploy foreign domestic workers in Singapore, she said.

Ms Jayaprema said many agencies now face uncertainty over their applications. "We are looking at a situation where employment agencies have no idea when the next batch of entry approvals are going to be processed."

On the issue of foreign domestic workers who had already received approval, several employment agencies told The Straits Times that the arrival dates of at least half of those scheduled to arrive this month have been pushed to next month or July.

This has caused financial strain for the agencies, as they cannot engage with fresh clients without new domestic worker arrivals.

The agencies say relying on transfer maids in Singapore is not feasible as their numbers are very limited.

Mr William Lau, director of employment agency Maid Avenue, is expecting little or no revenue this month, and has already asked half of his staff to go on unpaid leave.

Mr Lau said he was very worried about the future of his industry. "I'm hoping that the Government can offer some form of financial support, such as rental subsidies or wage support so that we can continue paying staff instead of laying them off."

Ms Jayaprema told ST that increased costs were another problem for the agencies. She said these included fees to keep domestic workers in overseas training centres longer, wasted air tickets, and refunds to potential employers who have cancelled their applications for domestic workers.

Employment agencies told ST that the extension of the stay-home notice (SHN) period from 14 to 21 days has also turned away some employers as they now have to pay more in SHN and Covid-19 test costs.

Ms Stephenie Toh, director of Recruitbee Employment, said her agency had lost about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of its clients, as they were either unwilling to wait so long or to bear the extra SHN costs.

She said: "If this lasts for more than one or two months, we may have to consider shrinking our manpower."

Employers who need maids urgently are also concerned about the situation.

Employer Carene Kee, 57, who works in property management, is worried about taking care of her 81-year-old mother, as her current domestic worker is due to leave in August. Her mother, who has schizophrenia and glaucoma, needs constant supervision.

The increased SHN costs have also added to her financial burden, as Ms Kee is a contract worker and, like her husband, is near retirement age.

Said Ms Kee: "I hope the Government can subsidise the SHN fees. For those with seniors and children at home, having a domestic worker is not a luxury but a necessity."

ST understands that low-income households can appeal to the Ministry of Manpower to waive the SHN and Covid-19 test charges.

MOM has also pointed out that those who need help at home can engage part-time workers under the Household Services Scheme.

Ms Jayaprema said other tightened measures that kicked in on Sunday (May 16) are also challenging for agencies.

With working from home being the default, it has left them wondering if they are still able to meet clients at their offices, while the new cap of two unique visitors per household has made it difficult for agencies to do home visits when needed.

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