Need to tap maids in drive to save water

Madam Yeong, 62, and her helper Fatimah, 35, save water from the washing machine's rinse cycles to wash the floors and flush toilets.
Madam Yeong, 62, and her helper Fatimah, 35, save water from the washing machine's rinse cycles to wash the floors and flush toilets.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Various efforts being made to bring domestic helpers on board water conservation wagon

Domestic workers take care of water-intensive activities such as washing and cooking. But they may not necessarily be aware of water- saving drives and messages, according to experts.

To help turn things around, some private and public organisations are planning to reach out, or have already engaged, these maids to acquaint them with the importance of conserving water.

The issue of saving water came under the spotlight after last Monday's Budget announcement that the Government is raising water prices by up to 30 per cent, the country's first such hike in 17 years.

This comes amid increasing concerns about Singapore's long-term water security.

Experts said the message about saving water may not be trickling down to many maids, going by their years of field experience and interactions with people in different countries. This is not helped by the fact that maids are not the ones paying the bills in Singapore.


Professor Asit Biswas of National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said the Republic is very different from developed cities in the West, because many of the middle and upper-class households have maids.

"No European or North American city has Singapore's unique characteristic of maids," said Prof Biswas, who has advised United Nations agencies and governments around the world on water security.

"And because the water price in Singapore is so low (relative to household income), the person in charge of water, for all practical purposes, is the maid."

While the price of potable water in major European cities ranges from about $5 to $8.50 per cu m, including taxes, that in Singapore is about $2 and will remain below $3 even after the 30 per cent hike.

Prof Biswas said the water-saving campaigns have mainly targeted Singaporeans, and this needs to be adjusted to educate maids too.

There are about 230,000 maids in Singapore, said the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support & Training (Fast).

Professor Ng Yew Kwang of Nanyang Technological University's Division of Economics said the phenomenon of how people who turn the taps on may not be actually paying the bills is a common one.

This is applicable to cleaners, for instance, apart from maids.

He added that a way around the problem would be to increase water prices substantially so that employers will take action. He had previously said that even a doubling of water prices would not be excessive from an economic perspective.

In response to queries from The Sunday Times, national water agency PUB said it has worked with the Ministry of Manpower to organise educational roadshows and activities on water conservation for domestic helpers.

The agency has produced a bilingual video and a water-saving handbook in English, Bahasa Indonesia, Tamil and Burmese that is shared with maid agencies and training providers.

Meanwhile, Fast president Seah Seng Choon said the association plans to organise talks by PUB, give away water-saving gadgets and appoint Save Water Ambassadors among its 6,000 member maids.

"Fast will be a vehicle to reinforce foreign domestic workers to do their part (to save water) as they are part of the fabric of Singapore society," added Mr Seah.

Meanwhile, some employers have been trying to educate their maids on saving water.

One of them is Madam Yeong Soh Yeng, a freelance pre-school teacher. She lives in a five-room Housing Board flat with her husband, seven children and their Indonesian maid, Madam Fatimah Dulhadi.

Madam Yeong, 62, noted that water usage by maids from different countries may differ, so it is up to employers to let them know how to manage the use of water for household chores.

She has taught Madam Fatimah, 35, to collect water from the washing machine's rinse cycles, which she said amounts to more than 10 litres, to wash the floor and flush the toilet.

In another household, administration officer Maha Leckshmi, 64, makes the effort to educate her Sri Lankan maid Welendra Mulacharige Wimalawathie, 55, on saving water.

The two, who live in a three-room flat in Yishun, use the washing machine only for curtains and bedsheets, and bathe from a pail.

Said Madam Leckshmi of her maid: "She's like family. I always show her the bill and tell her we need to save water and electricity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'Need to tap maids in drive to save water'. Print Edition | Subscribe