Wednesday 19 March 2014

Dealing with a new generation of maids

By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2014

BETTER pay, a day off every week, and even free access to Wi-Fi - the demands of foreign maids today are a far cry from when Singapore first opened its doors to them some three decades ago.

While an impoverished situation in their home country and a strong Singapore dollar remain the main push and pull factors, maids from the Philippines, Indonesia and even Cambodia now also want an enriching time for themselves while working here.

But while their needs are changing, some Singapore employers seem to be stuck in the past. This puts them in conflict with maids asking for better employment terms and more personal freedom.

The result has been more maids terminating standard two-year contracts early and changing employers.

According to figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), close to six in 10 maids placed by agencies between February 2011 and February last year stayed with the same employer for less than a year.

Singapore agents and maids - there are more than 214,500 here now compared with fewer than 100,000 three decades ago - say it is time for employers here to change their mindsets.

The increasing level of education of maids - most have completed secondary education compared with just primary school 30 years ago - means they are more aware of their rights, and are ready to push for them.

A law providing rest days for maids came into effect on Jan 1 last year. All maids hired or who have their work permits renewed from that date must receive a day off each week, or pay in lieu.

Maids whom The Straits Times spoke to described how much they looked forward to Sundays, when they can socialise with their friends and take a breather.

They admit that when bosses are not willing to offer them rest days, they prefer to look for a more accommodating employer.

Yet, many employers still prefer to pay extra money rather than allow their maids to take a weekly day off.

Employers have to shell out about $70 a month, on top of the basic pay of about $450, to get maids to work on rest days.

Many employers with elderly family members or young children will pay extra, as they find it hard to cope without their maid's help.

But employers can start off by negotiating with their maids for a monthly day off instead of a weekly one. Or, if the maids are needed on weekends, a day off on weekdays can be offered instead.

Some employers also worry that maids will fall into bad company on their days off and run away, putting them at risk of losing the $5,000 security bond.

But maids say employers do not have to worry about runaways if they are treated well.

Some even express disappointment that their employers do not trust them enough even after working for them for years.

"My employer thinks I will meet bad friends when I go out. But why would I want to find trouble? I am here to work and earn money," said 32-year-old Indonesian Purwati, who was given a monthly day off only after working for four years.

Another point of contention is Internet access. Some employers see it as a distraction, and will not share their home's Wi-Fi password with their maids.

Many maids own smartphones and spend up to $50 a month out of their own pockets to top up their pre-paid cards.

But a recent Straits Times report showed more and more foreign workers rely on online means to keep in touch with friends and family at home.

Indonesia's capital Jakarta is also known as "Twitter city", thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones.

Some agents interviewed say they know of maids who will give up their days off in exchange for free Internet access.

They suggest that employers can first observe their maids' work attitude for a few months. If the maids are responsible, employers can offer them the home's Wi-Fi password as a gesture of appreciation.

Given that most maids do not complete their two-year contracts, the reality is that employers have to contend with domestic workers who request for a change of employers.

In this employment climate, agents suggest that employers protect themselves by scrutinising their contracts, and by going for reputable agencies.

Cheap agency fees of as low as $300 may be tempting, but some agents note that low agency fees just mean the agents are recouping the placement fee from the maids themselves - and this can be as high as $4,000.

This means a longer repayment period for maids, and some can go for as long as eight months without any of their monthly salary of about $450 ending up in their own pockets.

These maids can get discouraged and end up quitting.

Another reason employers should be careful about engaging agents who charge low fees is because they often do not offer a refund on the placement fee.

This charge is usually paid upfront by employers on behalf of the maid if she decides to terminate her contract during the loan repayment period.

In short, employers must go through the terms and fine print of the service contracts with their agents to protect themselves.

But beyond safeguarding their own interests, employers should also consider how they can make working in Singapore more enjoyable for their maids.

A balance has to be struck between employers' expectations and the needs of their maids.

Otherwise, more maids will break their contracts, while employers end up paying more money to hire new ones and train them.

More money, less hassle for agents of transfer maids
Besides lower operating costs, they charge extra for in-person interviews
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 18 Mar 2014

WHEN a maid asks for a transfer, it spells inconvenience and cost for the employer.

But for the maid agent, it can mean more agency fees from a new employer, and more commission from the maid for finding her a new boss - all without the hassle of going abroad to recruit.

This high turnover of maids here - between February 2011 and last year, only slightly more than four in 10 maids stayed with the same employer for at least a year - was highlighted in a letter which ran in The Straits Times Forum pages last month.

It drew a flurry of online comments from employers, who said maids cite anything from family problems to being unhappy with their current employer, or wanting a weekly day off - to cut short the standard two-year contract.

Some also believe agents may not be doing enough to persuade maids to stay. Air stewardess Shirley Lee, 39, whose Filipino maid quit after three months, said: "Why would an agent want to help the maids solve their issues with employers if they can earn good profits when she transfers?"

Agents admit that working with transfer maids involves less hassle since they are already here. But agents still earn as much as the usual $600 to $800 they get for a new maid.

"There isn't enough incentive to persuade a maid to continue working for her employer instead of transferring," said an agent who declined to be named.

In recent years, the high turnover rate has even spurred the opening of agencies specialising in transfer maids.

Such agencies have sprouted up in Coronation Plaza and Lucky Plaza, which are known in the industry as "transfer-maid hubs".

Industry players said these specialist agencies can earn over $1,000 for each worker. The money comes from the lower operating costs, since they do not travel overseas, and also from charging employers extra for the benefit of interviewing the maids in person.

However, these agents said claims of easy money are wrong. Transfer maids tend to be more demanding since their experience is valued by employers. There have also been cases of employers hiring transfer maids directly after being introduced to them.

"So agents don't get to earn any money at all," said Averise maid agency owner M.K. Leo, who places both transfer maids and those starting fresh.

The transfer maid situation here is in marked contrast to that in Hong Kong. Agents there said over 60 per cent of maids complete their two-year contracts.

Maids there are deterred from changing bosses because each transfer takes two months and this means a loss of income. They earn over $650, compared to the market rate of $450 in Singapore, and pay lower placement fees.

Indonesian embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono, who is in charge of the welfare of maids here from his country, said the high turnover rate can be improved by matching maids with suitable employers. "Some maids are not told that they have to clean a big house with pets. So they get a shock and give up."

Maids are also more educated these days and ready to stand up for themselves. Said Orange Employment agency owner Shirley Ng: "Maids these days are less likely to keep quiet and just work. They will ask for a transfer if they do not get a day off."

A 29-year-old Filipino maid, who wanted to be identified only as Matat, is waiting for a new employer after her previous one did not accede to her request.

"I need to go to church and meet my friends on Sunday. It is something I must have."

Sunday visitors up as more maids get rest days
Some malls and parks popular with domestic helpers are seeing increased traffic
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2014

POPULAR hang-outs for maids have become more crowded over the past year, as more domestic helpers get days off.

Maids and business owners told The Straits Times that Lucky Plaza and City Plaza are seeing more Sunday visitors in recent months, as are other open spaces.

"Last time, only the front of City Plaza was crowded; now, all the sides are too," said Ms Kuswati, an Indonesian maid who goes by only one name. She meets friends at the shopping mall in Paya Lebar on Sundays.

She has lived in Singapore since 2008 but started getting weekly rest days only after her contract was renewed this month.

A rule mandating one day off every week or payment in lieu kicked in a year ago and applies to all new and renewed maid contracts.

Ms Maricel Cabauatan, 31, said that the queues to remit money at Lucky Plaza have also become longer since the start of this year - from two or three hours, to four.

"It's very difficult to walk around," added the Filipino maid who has worked here for seven years. "If you stay there for the whole day, you will feel very tired."

Shop assistant Alvie Tagbar, who works at one of the many convenience stores in Lucky Plaza, said: "Sometimes when I don't have stock and need to go upstairs to get more, I have to squeeze past people."

As the crowds grow, other places like parks and beaches - where people can gather without spending money - are catching the overflow.

For example, more maids are heading to the Botanic Gardens for picnics and birthday parties. The Gardens' director Nigel Taylor said he noticed this trend picking up in the last two years.

"It's been happening on such a scale that the picnicking has overflowed onto the paths and occupies public buildings to the scale of excluding other people," he said.

To cope, the Botanic Gardens encourages maids to have picnics on the lawns. "When we tell them they shouldn't picnic exclusively in the shelter, they move, no argument," he added.

In Sentosa, the pleasure island's management said that the number of maids visiting Sentosa on Sundays "has been pretty consistent through the years", probably due to the opening of more spaces islandwide where they can enjoy themselves.

But the higher footfall is not translating into higher returns for some businesses.

At City Plaza, shipping service Valutaayu-Yan Cargo said that although there are more maids, they are also younger and do not have as many items to send home. Costlier rent and stiffer competition have eaten into sales, said Mrs Dhayalyn Koh, manager of convenience shop Negrosanon Trading, which has been at Lucky Plaza for 14 years.

In Peninsula Plaza, where betel nuts and Myanmar food attract maids and workers, traffic has actually waned in recent years.

Internet cafe owner Tang Kok Eng puts it down to the tightening of labour laws that has made it harder for workers to get work passes renewed.

"The levies are higher now," he said. "People also can get Internet on their phones so maybe they don't need to come here."

Shoppers like Ms Gladys Tan, 23, said the sea of people does not bother them. "They are usually outside the mall having picnics so it's quite a normal crowd inside," said the public servant, who visits a salon at City Plaza around once a month.

Some maids, like Ms Holymar Loremia, 40, choose to avoid the crowds altogether.

The Filipina, who has worked in Singapore for seven years, was at Gardens by the Bay on a recent Sunday having lunch with a friend.

"We prefer to come here because it's less crowded and more peaceful," she said.

More taking weekdays off
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2014

IT IS a Wednesday afternoon, and while her friends are doing housework or preparing dinner, Indonesian maid Farida Gahro, 45, is attending a cooking class.

She takes one Wednesday and three Sundays off a month to study cooking, business and caregiving.

"I like classes because I can take the knowledge back to Indonesia, and maybe I can start a small restaurant," she said.

Several bosses of maid agencies told The Straits Times that they have seen more requests from employers for maids to take days off on weekdays.

More may do so in the future, as new and renewed contracts come under the weekly rest day rule that kicked in last year. The Ministry of Manpower does not regulate which day the rest day falls on.

A common reason cited for giving a day off on a weekday is that the employers need a maid to care for their elderly parents on weekends, when they are resting.

Madam Lily Ngieng of Lily Employment Agency added: "Some employers work on Sunday and need someone to take care of the children."

One such employer is Mrs Jenny Ng, 35, a sales assistant with a toddler. She works through the weekend as "that is the busiest time for sales".

Some agents, however, discourage employers from giving weekday rest days. This is because the maids will not be able to spend time with their friends, most of whom are out only on Sundays.

Mr Amar Pal Singh of Admore Employment Agency said: "I have maids who (take the day) off on weekdays but they don't know where to go and end up back at the agency."

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