A rising number of Myanmar maids are running away from their Singapore employers, saying they find it unbearable to work for months without receiving any pay.
The reason is that they arrive with large debts to repay, and until those are cleared some receive no money at all. Others get just $10 or $20 a month.
Maid agents estimate that there are close to 27,000 Myanmar women working here as domestic workers, up from about 20,000 at the start of last year.
Although Myanmar bars its women from going overseas to be maids or entertainers, more have been arriving to make up for the shrinking number of new Indonesian maids.
Since January this year, 32 Myanmar runaways have sought shelter at foreign workers group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).
This number is half of the 64 who turned up over the whole of last year. Home sheltered 29 runaway Myanmar maids in 2011 and 13 in 2010.
Agents say the women get demoralised when they go unpaid for up to eight months while repaying placement fees of $3,200 to $3,360.
The going rate for Myanmar maids is between $400 and $420 a month, lower than what Indonesians and Filipinas command.
Many also arrive underage and untrained, do not speak English and find it hard to cope with working here, agents said.
The president of the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore), Ms K. Jayaprema, said the placement fees for Myanmar maids has spiked from the equivalent of five months' pay to eight months' pay over the past year.
She blamed agents in Myanmar for jacking up their fees, knowing that their counterparts here were desperate to make up a shortfall in supply after months of wrangling with Indonesian recruiters over fees for their maids.
She said the extra costs are passed on to the women, not employers, because agents here are anxious to keep the cost of hiring a Myanmar maid low.
Many agents charge employers $300 or less for Myanmar maids.
Ms Jayaprema felt the Myanmar government needs to stop agents there from jacking up their fees.
Meanwhile, some agents here have begun putting a limit on the placement fees that Myanmar maids have to repay. Some have capped it at the equivalent of four months' pay, and raised the fees employers must pay to close to $1,000.
Agent Carene Chin said: "I tell customers if their maid's loans are lower, we can motivate them to work harder and be happier."
A Manpower Ministry spokesman said fees that are paid overseas and the regulation of employment agencies in foreign countries are beyond Singapore's jurisdiction.
"However, the ministry works closely with the respective foreign embassies and shares relevant information obtained during the course of its investigations," she said.
She added that Singapore laws bar agencies here from charging foreign workers fees that exceed one month of pay for each year of the duration of their work pass. The total amount charged must not exceed two months' salary.
Employment agents who flout these guidelines can be fined up to $5,000, jailed for up to six months, or both. They will also be issued demerit points.
Agents must also ensure that all maids brought here are at least 23 years old.
Last year, seven agencies were warned and four of them were issued demerit points for bringing in underage maids.
Home chief executive Bridget Tan felt there should be a more coordinated effort by the Singapore and Myanmar authorities to improve the employment terms of Myanmar maids.
"Myanmar women are eager to leave their country to earn a living and will agree to any terms given to them," she said. "The Singapore and Myanmar governments need to step up checks to prevent them from being abused."