Friday, 18 July 2014

Treating maids with dignity and respect

'Treat maids with dignity in ads'
MOM sends letter to agencies after report of maids marketed like goods
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 17 Jul 2014

THE Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has asked maid agencies to ensure that their advertisements accord maids "basic respect and human dignity" in the wake of a foreign news report about how these workers are marketed like goods here.

In a letter sent out yesterday, MOM's deputy commissioner for employment agencies, Ms Penny Elaine Yapp, said the ministry is concerned by "incidences of insensitive advertising and inappropriate display" of maids.

She noted that advertisements at some agencies emphasise cheap fees, promotional rates and discounts, giving the impression that foreign domestic workers are "being marketed as merchandise". Ms Yapp said advertisements should not include "fees or liken foreign domestic workers to merchandise that can be purchased and replaced when found unsatisfactory".

The letter comes on the back of a news report by Arab news agency Al Jazeera earlier this month, which said maids here were being marketed as "commodities".

The story highlighted the apparent lack of respect for maids when they are "displayed" in agencies surrounded by "garish advertisements offering super promo rates".

Maids were also described as being on "display at work in mock living rooms" as they carry out tasks such as ironing clothes and pushing one another on wheelchairs.

Maid agents later interviewed by The Straits Times explained that these "mock living rooms" were actually training areas.

MOM did not mention these training rooms in the letter. But it said getting maids to sit outside the agency premises is unacceptable.

Ms Yapp said MOM will take action against agencies which continue in their disrespectful marketing strategies.

Maid agencies interviewed said they hope MOM's reminder will stop errant practices which have drawn flak from governments of foreign countries where maids hail from.

Following the Al Jazeera report, the Philippine government launched a probe into the marketing strategies of agencies here.

It has barred two Singapore maid agencies, Homekeeper and Budget Maid, from recruiting Filipinos. The ban has yet to be lifted.

Homekeeper agency said the report was unfair and has asked Al Jazeera to publish a clarification. However, it has not heard back from the news agency.

Some maid agents suggested that MOM go a step further by including advertising standards in regulations for maid agencies.

Mr Stephen Chia, who owns 21st Century Employment Agency, said: "Only then will agents abide by the rules."

Other agents are less optimistic that industry practices will improve.

They said the MOM letter does not address the problem of maid agencies competing to charge low prices, which is the reason for ads promoting low fees.

Best Home Employment Agency boss Tay Khoon Beng said: "There is a price war going on now, where agents are competing to slash fees. We should move towards competing on quality and service but I don't see this happening."

Separately, MOM said in a press release yesterday that a maid employer has been fined $12,000 for not paying his maid. Razalee Rasdi, 51, had owed the domestic worker salary amounting to $7,450.40.

Accord maids dignity all workers deserve
Editorial, The Straits Times, 19 Jul 2014

THE alleged marketing of maids as "commodities" by Singapore maid agencies is a foreign caricature that bears a ring of truth. It has prompted the Manpower Ministry to express its concern over "incidents of insensitive advertising and inappropriate display" of maids.

This should give agents, and potential employers, pause for reflection. Do Singaporeans accord sufficient dignity and respect to domestic workers who contribute significantly to help keep households humming and care for the young, elderly and those with a disability? The gaudy "$1 maid" banners on some agents' premises betray lingering attitudes towards domestic work which, as the International Labour Organisation noted, "continues to be undervalued and invisible".

In their desperation to find work abroad, domestic workers take on debts to cover travel and fees charged by foreign agents. In Singapore, the local agent is prohibited from charging more than two months' salary for a two-year employment contract. But when a price war breaks out in the industry, agents trim the fees they charge employers. Some then collude with foreign agents to extract more money from maids indirectly, according to the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore). It is calling for a cap on the fees that employers pay on behalf of their maids and recover progressively from their salaries. When such debts are as high as $4,000, maids might have largely no pay for eight or nine months. This is plainly unconscionable and would hardly be tolerated by other groups of workers here.

Agents need to take a long, hard look at their dubious practices, which include making employers bear the risk of loan defaults, for example, when distraught maids run away. Stricter rules in Singapore will help but can be circumvented, for example, by claiming exorbitant fees are due to foreign agents. Efforts to curb unscrupulous practices abroad can bear fruit only with the cooperation of foreign authorities. Activists have long called for the "creation of an Asean standard on social protection and welfare" for the benefit of migrant workers. Kicking the can down the road will prolong their woes.

On their part, Singaporeans must go beyond just paying lip service to a fair deal for migrant workers. Most people are unlikely to be employers in their lifetime but for a maid in their home. As such, they ought to aspire to be as fair as their expectation of a good boss at their own workplace. The sound attitudes of employers could rub off on agents and help to professionalise the hiring of maids. Most Singaporeans would be appalled by any form of abuse suffered by maids here. So, why should financial abuse be any different?

Call to cap maid recruitment fee paid by employers
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 17 Jul 2014

THE biggest maid agent association here has submitted a proposal to the Government to cap the fees that employers pay on behalf of their maids, to stop agents from jacking up fees.

The Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) (AEAS) is calling for this fee - which can be as high as $4,000 - to be capped at around $1,000 instead.

As maids usually cannot afford the fee, employers "lend" them the money, getting the money back through deductions from the maids' salaries. The women can thus go without pay for up to nine months or take home as little as $10 to $20 each month.

The high fees have caused maids to run away. Bosses suffer too, said Ms K. Jayaprema, president of the AEAS, who sent the proposal to the Manpower Ministry (MOM) on Monday.

Some employers do not get any refund for the money they pay on behalf of the maids when the women quit. "There are contracts which state that employers will not get any money back if their maid is transferred to a new boss within two or three months," she said.

Under current legislation, maid agents here can charge workers recruitment fees of only up to two months of their salaries - maids earn about $500 a month.

But some Singapore agents collude with overseas recruiters to collect more than what is allowed here, said Ms Jayaprema. The proposal aims to improve the current law by spelling out that employers should not pay more than a certain sum to agents on behalf of maids.

A lack of records also makes the current rule hard to enforce.

"Some Singapore agents are earning four or more months of the maids' salaries," said Ms Jayaprema. "But we can't prove it because the money goes into overseas bank accounts or there is no paper trail," she said.

But this can be addressed if maids take loans from foreign banks and pay monthly. "MOM will be able to see how much the maids are paying and to whom," she added.

The AEAS suggests that the MOM work with foreign countries to set up loan schemes with overseas financial institutions.

When contacted, the MOM said it is reviewing the recommendations by the AEAS and that it takes a strong stance against maids being overcharged in fees. In the past two years, 10 agents were each fined $2,500 or $3,000 for charging excessive fees.

Maid agents interviewed by The Straits Times welcomed the proposal but said that, if it is adopted, employers will likely have to pay a higher service fee to maid agents. This may rise from around $400 to $1,000 now to about $2,000.

"Right now, maid agents are passing on most of the cost to the maids and charging employers low fees. They will have to balance the cost out more," said Ms Shirley Ng, owner of Orange Employment Agency.

The dark side of maid recruitment
Despite the many arrests, deployment bans and restrictions introduced by the Philippines in recent years, the illegal recruitment of Filipino maids for households in Singapore continues to thrive, feeding on the layers of regulations and fees that hiring a maid across borders entails.
By Raul Dancel, Philippines Correspondent, In Manila, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2014

FROM April to July this year, Ms Jonnalyn Arcillas, 32, "performed" household chores, sometimes for as long as 15 hours a day, for "would-be employers" in Singapore said to be watching her via CCTV cameras.

She had left her home in Zamboanga city, in the south, for Manila, trusting in a promise by a family acquaintance that in three weeks she would be working as a maid in Singapore.

She was taken to a building south of the capital city, where she was told she would have to be prepped for her new job.

One floor of the building was used as sleeping quarters, where she was crammed with about 80 other "trainees", and another floor served as a "training facility".

There were CCTV cameras mounted all around both floors, their red LED lights like tiny, unblinking eyes watching her even as she slept.

When her "training" began, Ms Arcillas was told to surrender her mobile phone. She was also told to stay inside the building at all times, and that if she had to go out to shop, a guard would have to accompany her.

There was often not enough food for everyone, and she remembers days when she ironed clothes, did the laundry, cleaned rooms and cooked from 6am to 9pm as part of her "training". "Trainers", both men and women, berated her often.

When four months had passed and it became clear to her that she was never going to set foot in Singapore, Ms Arcillas asked to be released but was told she would have to pay everything her recruiter had spent on her.

She paid up and ran to the police.

No licence

LAST month, agents from the Anti-Transnational Crimes Unit swooped down on the "training facility", arresting the Filipino couple running the place and 12 others, including Singaporean Yvonne Phua, 55, who police said was a "trainer" sent by PEM Maid Employment Agency in Singapore.

It was an unlicensed operation, the head of the police unit, Senior Superintendent John Guyguyon, said.

"PEM is a registered agency in Singapore, but here in the Philippines it is not," he said.

He said it was not illegal to provide board and lodging to women being trained and recruited for jobs abroad.

But the conditions that the women were subjected to broke the law, which he suggested was probably the reason those behind the operation did not bother to secure a licence in the first place.

Government regulations bar recruitment firms from taking live videos of applicants simulating domestic work, so they can be vetted by off-site employers, he said.

Senior Supt Guyguyon said it was the first time he came across such an operation.

"It's like Amazon," he said, referring to the American online retailer. "If the clients like what they see, they just order one, and the maid gets sent to them."

Recruitment industry consultant Emmanuel Geslani told The Straits Times that illegal recruitment of Filipinos for jobs as maids in Singapore is still thriving despite the many arrests, deployment bans and tighter regulations introduced in recent years.

Senior Supt Guyguyon added: "Money is easy with this racket."

The Philippines has about 1,000 licensed recruitment firms that handle the deployment of over 1.8 million migrant workers each year.

About two-thirds get sent to the Middle East. The rest head for Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

Illegal recruitment feeds on this ecosystem.

In 2012, there were three cases of illegal recruitment filed every day, according to the Philippine Institute for Government Studies, a think-tank.

An individual, group or company is considered breaking the law when they recruit workers for jobs overseas without a government licence.

Illegal recruiters act as middlemen for employment agencies abroad. They also supply applicants to licensed recruitment firms.

Illegal recruiters fly under the radar, so they can circumvent government regulations that limit the fees agencies both in the Philippines and abroad can charge to workers.

For instance, a woman applying for a job as a maid in Singapore does not have to pay for her plane ticket, training expense, work documents, medical check-ups and insurance, much less the commissions of her Philippine recruiter or the foreign agency that places her.

Her employer is supposed to cover all these expenses, which can run up to S$4,000.

Mr Richard Hoey, president of Reach Manpower International, a licensed recruiter, said his company earns about S$400 for each maid it sends to Singapore.

Illegal recruiters, on the other hand, can make 10 times as much by passing on as many fees as their victims are willing to accept - airfare, passport, board and lodging - on top of hefty commissions.

Illegal recruiters get their cuts up front, while the receiving agencies they are in cahoots with deduct the total sum in monthly instalments from the workers' salaries.

In Singapore, Filipino maids who have fallen prey to illegal recruiters have complained that they have worked without being paid, sometimes for as long as eight months.

Some enter Singapore as tourists and the receiving agencies then apply for their work permits.

According to the Philippine authorities' data, there are around 70,000 documented Filipino maids in Singapore.

The actual number, according to Mr Geslani, is closer to 150,000.

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower website says there are 214,000 maids in Singapore, mostly Filipinas and Indonesians.

Mr Alfredo Palmiery, president of the Federated Association of Manpower Exporters, said the maids themselves add to the problem.

"These women aren't illiterate. They knew what they were getting into. They were told that they will have to pay for this and that, that their salaries would be deducted. Yet, they leave anyway," he said.

Ms Anita, a 48-year-old Filipino maid who requested that her real name not be used, is one such example.

The former school teacher told The Straits Times she had little choice when she headed to Singapore as a tourist 10 years ago and then got herself hired as a maid.

"I couldn't send my children to college on a public school teacher's salary, so I bit the bullet," she said.

26 maid agencies under probe over 'unauthorised' pay deductions
By Raul Dancel and Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 19 Aug 2014

THE Philippines is investigating 26 maid agencies in Singapore accused of collecting placement fees that have been banned.

The move followed a petition submitted to Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz by the Association of Licensed Recruitment Agencies to Singapore (Alras), a group which represents 120 of around 150 Philippine recruitment firms that supply maids to Singapore.

Alras accused the Singapore agencies of taking an equivalent of eight months' pay from maids they recruit, or up to S$3,800, as placement fees.

The collection of such fees, which include airfare and training costs, was banned by Manila in 2007.

Among the agencies named in Alras' list were Homekeeper and Budget Maid, which the Philippines last month suspended from hiring Filipinos.

Alras accused Homekeeper of charging up to $2,000, and Budget Maid as much as $3,500.

Mr Mark Chin, a director of Homekeeper, rejected the accusation.

"We are only charging the maids two months of their salary in recruitment fees, which is in line with MOM guidelines," he said, referring to Singapore's Ministry of Manpower.

The ministry allows employment agencies to deduct as placement fees a month's worth of salary for every year in a maid's work permit.

Since a work permit is usually valid for two years, the agencies can deduct at most two months of a maid's salary.

Ms Baldoz told The Straits Times that whatever action to be taken against the agencies in Alras' list - which could include a ban - will depend on the outcome of the investigations.

Alras has been campaigning to limit salary deductions to two months, if an outright ban on placement fees is not possible because of Singapore's regulations.

In September last year, it suspended sending maids to Singapore to press for a ban on placement fees.

But it resumed business a month later after it received commitments from 60 per cent of some 300 Singapore agencies that they would stop taking placement fees or keep them to two months' pay.

But now Alras says it has received reports that "a sizeable number" of Singapore agencies "continue to exact illegal fees" from Filipino maids.

More than half of around 180,000 Filipinos in Singapore work as maids. They earn anywhere from $400 to $600 a month, six times more than the $75 a household helper in the Philippines makes.

Maid agencies clean up their act
Notices with maids' biodata, fees gone from Katong, Bukit Timah malls
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 11 Sep 2014

"FAST delivery". "$1 maids".

Advertisements likening maids to goods are no longer seen at Katong Shopping Centre and Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, two months after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) warned against insensitive ads.

Such demeaning banners and signs have been removed, while notices showing "maid fees" have been covered up at the two centres, which house about a dozen maid agencies each.

Also absent were rows of maids usually seen seated outside the agencies, a practice which MOM had deemed "unacceptable".

Mr Bernard Ryan, operations director of Maids & Manpower Agency, used to have his agency fees and the biodata of maids displayed on his shop window but has since removed them.

Maid agents told The Straits Times MOM officers had visited a few times over the last month to ensure they follow the guidelines.

An MOM spokesman said its officers had talked to maid agents after it issued an advisory in July, asking them to ensure all ads accord maids "basic respect and human dignity".

"(Agencies) that were observed not to be in compliance with the advisory were receptive to the advice given by our officers and readily complied," she said.

Ms May Phua, general manager of May Myanmar Services, for example, knew she was not supposed to publicise her fees but did not realise that a sign bearing the phrase "fast arrival" was also prohibited.

"He (MOM officer) told me that it suggests that the maids are like commodities," she said. She later used masking tape to cover up the sign.

MOM had issued the guidelines after Arab news agency Al Jazeera reported in June that maids were displayed or marketed like commodities by some agencies here. It cited the Katong and Bukit Timah shopping centres as places where such practices were seen.

Maid businesses that did not resort to the questionable marketing tactics have welcomed MOM's move. They said this not only ensures maids are treated with more respect, but also levels the playing field.

"At least now potential employers will actually walk around to find an agency that can best meet their needs," said Madam Sa'diah Saidi, sales manager at Aflah Employment Agency.

"In the past, they will just walk straight to those which promise low prices."

As for migrant worker welfare groups, they said the agencies' change of ways was a good sign, but also raised other concerns.

For instance, several agencies at the two centres still had maids doing household chores in mock living rooms visible from the outside, ostensibly for training purposes.

The women, while seated in and not outside the shops, still faced passers-by.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said these practices, while not specially mentioned in the MOM advisory, seemed degrading to maids.

"What kind of training is this if someone is just pushing the wheelchairs aimlessly?" he asked.

Another migrant worker activist noted the need to look beyond the surface for deeper change.

Mr William Chew, executive director of the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training, said: "We should also look at practices behind the scenes, whether maids are properly integrated here or whether they are provided with help when they encounter problems with their employers."

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