Saturday, 24 November 2012

Do we need 100,000 more maids?

Given the Government's ongoing productivity push, it is time to question Singapore's reliance on live-in maids, and put real effort into developing alternatives
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 22 Nov 2012

LAST week, the Government estimated that resident households' demand for domestic helpers would increase by 100,000 maids by 2030, bringing the total to 300,000.

That increase - large enough on its own - is especially striking given ongoing efforts to reduce reliance on foreign workers.

Since 2009, the Government has been tightening foreign worker policy in response to public unhappiness over crowding and competition. It has persisted in the face of firms' complaints that the labour shortage is putting a damper on business. In response, the Government has said that economic growth should be fuelled more by productivity gains and less by increasing headcount.

Yet the domestic work sector seems to have escaped unscathed.

If anything, the Government has been making it easier to hire maids. Employers have to pay the Government a monthly maid levy, and the last time this rose was in 1998, from $330 to $345.

Since then, it has only fallen: to $295 in 2005, and again to $265 in 2007, where it remains today.

Both the tightening of foreign worker policy and the accompanying productivity drive seem to have passed this sector by.

But why should this be the case, when the rest of the economy is not spared? It is not a question of possibility, for there is room to restructure Singapore's approach to domestic work.

Having fewer maids

FEWER than a fifth of resident households here employ maids, yet having one is now seen as a necessity - at least by some who take that option.

Witness, for instance, the outcry in March when the Government mandated a weekly day off for maids. There was further dismay in August, when the Indonesian government said it would introduce contracts requiring its citizens to be paid at least $450 a month as maids.

Such reactions would seem bizarre in many other developed countries, where live-in domestic help is rare and pricey. How, then, do those societies get by?

In Singapore, the burden of domestic work traditionally fell upon female household members, but has been shifting to hired help. In countries such as Japan and South Korea, that shift may not have happened to the same degree. Their female labour force participation rates are about 50 per cent compared to Singapore's 57 per cent, meaning that half of women of working age are not in the workforce. Many might instead be running their homes.

Of course, reducing Singapore's reliance on maids by requiring more Singaporean women to stay at home would be an unthinkably backward move, both socially and economically.

Nor is it necessary.

Countries with comparable rates of female labour force participation, such as Finland and Sweden, do perfectly well without large numbers of live-in maids, observes Dr Teo You Yenn, a board member of civil society group Association of Women for Action and Research.

Instead, families there are more likely to have access to affordable, high-quality, full-time childcare services, she says.

Parents can also take time off to care for children. And stronger social safety nets make it easier to scale down on full-time employment temporarily, while the children are still young.

In short, childcare is not the duty of a single caregiver - whether maid or mother - but is partly shared by both parents, and partly entrusted to service providers.

The same model can apply to maids' other duties such as cleaning and elder care.

Earlier this week, Best Home Employment Agency owner Tay Khoon Beng suggested that agencies should be allowed to recruit maids who visit different homes during the day but live in boarding houses provided by agents.

The potential productivity gains are clear.

Now, a maid cleans only one house, but a part-time house cleaner can clean several each week.

A maid might care only for one or two children, but a childcare centre does not need one worker for every child who goes there.

And a maid might care only for one elderly person, but a care worker might visit several.

Singapore may need more such workers as a result. But that is still likely to be more efficient than a continued reliance on live-in maids.

What stands in the way

SUCH "alternative markets" are already present here, notes economist and National University of Singapore professor Shandre Thangavelu. But they remain underdeveloped "because the cost of live-in maids is still cheaper".

Most maids here are paid about $450 a month. Employers also pay a levy of $265, or $170 if they have elderly or disabled household members, or young children.

Meanwhile, the average monthly fee for full-day childcare is more than $800, according to government figures. To have a house cleaner visit four times a month could cost about $200 to $300.

That is why the cost proposition of a live-in maid is so compelling. She could do both childcare and cleaning duties - and more - for a relatively low price.

"Having the one woman do everything is extremely cost-effective. Unfortunately, middle class Singaporeans are stuck on that," says Institute of Southeast Asian Studies fellow Theresa W. Devasahayam. The low cost of hiring a maid means there is little incentive for employers to wean themselves off this dependence.

Some services may not even be available or accessible. For elder care, having "a centralised facility such as a day-care centre could be one answer", says Dr Loke Wai Chiong, director of global health-care practice at KPMG in Singapore. But he cautions that this requires a broader range of types and pricing of community care.

As long as maids remain the easiest option, families have little reason to look for alternatives. Yet this lack of demand also makes it less likely that good, affordable alternatives will arise.

Prof Thangavelu sees a large role for the Government in ensuring the affordability and availability of childcare and elder care, including getting more involved in their provision.Left to the market, such services would be overpriced and under-supplied, as providers do not take into account the social benefits, he says.

And "if there were more of such facilities, there would be less reason to turn to domestic workers", says Dr Devasahayam.

Besides freeing current employers of the need for maids, these alternatives could also help stay-at-home parents enter or re-enter the workforce.

Having the option

ACADEMICS acknowledge that it is hard to apply the cold lens of productivity to personal decisions about caring for loved ones.

For instance, "caring for an aged individual at home is still culturally preferable to the stigma associated with sending a loved one to an old-age home or institution", says Dr Loke.

There are also households whose needs may be best met by a live-in domestic worker.

What is important, therefore, is not doing away with maids altogether, but providing good alternatives to employing one.

Different families will have different needs, "and that's fine as long as there really is a realistic range that people can opt from", says Dr Teo.

Instead of employing maids as an "all-in-one" option, employers can "choose the right bundle of services" for their needs, says Prof Thangavelu.

In reducing Singapore's reliance on low-wage foreign domestic workers, there are higher ideals at stake, too: moving away from the exploitation of low-wage labour, for instance, and helping to dismantle the view that domestic work has to be "women's work".

But until such concerns strike a chord with more people, there is still the familiar economic imperative of productivity.

That should, at least, spur the Government to action. It can help to make better and cheaper options available - and has begun to do so, with more childcare and elder-care centres on the way, and the possibility of more subsidies.

It remains for Singaporeans to seriously consider these alternatives and contemplate a life less reliant on the labour of a single individual.

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