In a move aimed at raising their service standards, maid agencies will be graded before they are allowed to renew their licences.
A scheme called Trustmark will be rolled out by December next year under which the agencies will be graded by the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
All agencies will need to be graded before they are allowed to renew their licences, said Minister of State for Manpower Sam Tan at an industry seminar yesterday.
They will also have to display their grading certificates prominently on their premises.
Mr Tan said the ministry often receives complaints about how distressing it is for employers and maids when their expectations are not well matched.
Employers' main complaint - poor service
Unsatisfactory services, including hidden transfer fees, a refusal to give refunds and a failure to honour contracts, is the main issue vexing employers when they deal with maid agencies.
Executive director for Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) Seah Seng Choon said that for the last three years, it had received an average of around 1,000 complaints a year.
Problems range from claims that a maid was proficient in English when she was not, to agents' refusal to give refunds to employers when maids run away.
A mother of two who gave her name as Ms Shan Shan said she hired an Indonesian maid in January whose biodata stated that she had no medical conditions.
However, after the maid went for her medical check-up here, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure.
When Ms Shan Shan asked the agent to take the maid back, she was told that the $2,600 deposit would be returned only if the maid found a new employer.
It was only after two months of negotiations that he relented and returned the money.
"I'm glad there's protection (for maids) from abuse by errant employers, but there also needs to be some protection for us," said Ms Shan Shan, 36.
The senior brand manager is currently taking a break from work to look after her children.
Mr Seah advised employers to consider engaging agencies accredited by the consumer watchdog as these are "committed to transparency and fair trading".
"Before signing the employment contract, (employers) should also read the terms and conditions carefully," he added.
"Verbal agreements not found in the standard contract should be committed in writing."
Joanna Seow and Aw Cheng Wei
He said: "When this happens, both the foreign domestic worker and the family feel highly stressed."
Mr Tan stressed that maid agencies have a vital role to play as an intermediary as they have to understand employers' household needs before matching them with a maid.
For example, a maid who does not want to work on Sundays will not be a good fit for a family with someone who needs constant attention.
Agencies should also help both employers and maids "set clear expectations upfront", he added.
Even before Trustmark is rolled out, agencies will already be under the spotlight. In a scheme to be implemented by June, employers will be invited by SMS to rate an agency whose services they have used through an online survey that should take less than a minute to complete.
The system is developed by MOM, and employer feedback for each agency will be made public on the ministry's website after at least three ratings have been consolidated for that agency.
Maid agencies are now listed on the MOM's website with their number of years of experience, number of maids they placed, and the retention and transfer rate. The website also lists industry averages.
When the new initiatives are rolled out, employers will be able to see on MOM's website the grade and rating each agency receives.
Ms Carene Chin, who runs maid agency Homekeeper, said that with the new initiatives, she will focus not just on matching maids to employers but also services before and after the pairing.
These include providing correct biodata, ensuring there are no teething problems after the maid moves in, and that she is paid on time.
"Employers are not our only customers, maids are too," Ms Chin said, noting that happy maids can also mean better business for her firm as "word-of-mouth advertising is very strong" and maids tell each other about the good agencies and employers.
The Centre for Domestic Employees, an arm of the labour movement, welcomed the Trustmark scheme. Its executive director for operations, Ms Phyllis Lim, said it will foster more transparent and fair employment and recruitment practices.
It is also recommending that agencies adopt a model service contract between them and the employer. Terms to spell out include a detailed computation of placement cost, pay dates and bonus for contract renewal. Ms Lim said this will reduce misunderstanding.
Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, urged MOM to include maids' feedback on agencies and "let them have equal participation" when grading them as they, too, are paying customers.
The Straits Times understands that the Government is looking at including maids' feedback in the assessment criteria.
Employers are cheered by the schemes.
Operations executive Benson Wong, 32, who employed a maid last month to take care of his two- year-old son, said: "If I am not happy with the agency's service, I know how to make my concerns heard."