"Fast processing and delivery." "Unlimited replacements." "We deliver quality helpers right to your doorstep!"
Despite guidelines against such advertisements introduced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) four years ago, advertising terms that liken maids to commodities have resurfaced, this time in the online sphere.
A check by The Sunday Times found at least five agencies that used phrases that had been flagged by MOM as unacceptable, including "free replacement" and "fast delivery", over the past three months.
Two months ago, an employment agency and its employee were charged in court for putting up such insensitive advertisements, the first time that such action had been taken against an agent for the offence.
On behalf of her agency SRC Recruitment, Erleena Mohd Ali, 41, had put up on online marketplace Carousell listings that showed the faces of several women believed to be from Indonesia. Last month, she was fined $20,000 after pleading guilty to the charges.
Some of the posts indicated the maids had been "sold". Other terms used in her posts included "reserved" and "collection".
Some unacceptable words and phrases include:
• Free replacement
• Fast delivery and fast arrival
The posts came to the attention of the Indonesian Embassy, which asked for a thorough investigation. Manpower Minister Josephine Teo also condemned the actions of the agency in a Facebook post, calling such practices "absolutely unacceptable". Another case against the agency has not been concluded.
Ms K. Jayaprema, president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), which represents about 350 agencies here, said that maid agencies have "slackened" in their efforts to adhere to advertising guidelines since 2014, when MOM raised awareness of the issue.
This was after Arab news agency Al Jazeera reported that advertisements that commodified maids were common in Katong and Bukit Timah shopping centres. These signs with labels such as "$1 maids" were removed after MOM introduced guidelines and stepped up enforcement in 2014.
"A large group of new agencies have entered the market since then, and they may not be as aware of these guidelines," said Ms Jayaprema, whose association advised employment agents to stop such practices in September, when the Carousell incident first came to light.
CHANGING PUBLIC ATTITUDES
The MOM and agency bodies can counsel against bad practices but, in the long term, what's needed is continued change in public attitudes so that higher standards are set and degrading advertising becomes both socially unacceptable and financially disadvantageous.
MR JOHN GEE, who chairs the research sub-committee at non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too.
MOM guidelines state that forms of advertising that cast maids in an "undignified manner" are not allowed both online and offline.
These include, but are not limited to, the mention of fees or other financial terms such as maids' salaries or loan amounts, subjective traits such as "obedient", "compliant", "smart" and "hardworking", and terms such as "fast delivery" or "free replacement" that liken maids to merchandise that can be bought or replaced.
Circulars reminding agencies of the guidelines were sent out by MOM in 2016, and twice this year.
Since 2016, nine employment agencies have been taken to task for such advertising practices, including the agency prosecuted by MOM for the Carousell advertisement, an MOM spokesman said in response to queries.
Actions taken include warnings and the meting out of demerit points, which can lead to the suspension or revocation of an agency's licence if 24 points are accumulated.
When contacted, Ms Shanthi P. Sreeramulu, a recruitment agent from Recruit Asia Consultants who had promised "fast arrival" of maids in a Gumtree advertisement that has since been removed, acknowledged that she could have used alternative phrases.
"But there are so many advertisements online, including those from unlicensed agents. We need a phrase that is short and simple so that it can be quickly understood," she added.
PK Consultancy and Management's administrative manager, who gave his name only as Mr Pratheep, said his agency's use of the phrase "we provide fast processing and delivery" on an online advertisement refers to the agency's handling of paperwork, rather than the maids themselves. He agreed that this could be worded more clearly.
An MOM spokesman said that regular checks are conducted at agencies. Feedback from the public will be looked into, and MOM will take into account the context of how advertisements are used before determining the appropriate action to be taken. Agencies can approach the ministry for guidance on what terms are considered acceptable.
Ms Jayaprema, however, called for a more "holistic approach".
She has seen instances where maids post their photos and details online, or employers do the same on a public platform for maids seeking a transfer, but they are not subject to the same regulations as agencies, she said. "Why are there such double standards?"
Mr John Gee, who chairs the research sub-committee at non-governmental organisation Transient Workers Count Too, said beyond such marketing practices, agencies may say things to employers face to face that are not stated in writing or online publicity materials.
"This can include playing on national stereotypes, such as the supposed docility of Myanmar workers, which we feel only encourages employers to take advantage of them."
"The MOM and agency bodies can counsel against bad practices but, in the long term, what's needed is continued change in public attitudes so that higher standards are set and degrading advertising becomes both socially unacceptable and financially disadvantageous," he added.