Monday, May 21, 2007

Sama sama (same same)?

May 17, 2007
Foreign domestic workers vulnerable to unfair practices


I BECAME a first-time employer of an Indonesian domestic helper at the end of April. It was only after this experience that I became more aware of the other forms of vulnerability faced by domestic helpers.

Other than being vulnerable to abuse by employers, which we read so much about in the press, they are also vulnerable to unfair practices adopted by maid agencies. Unfortunately, this is an area that is relatively under reported.

I would like to bring to light the unfortunate circumstances surrounding my domestic helper. She has been through three transfers before being employed by me. She was charged an amount equivalent to nine months of her salary by the agency bringing her into Singapore.

She worked half a month for the first employer, after which she requested a transfer. In this first employment, she was taking care of an elderly couple who made her climb a coconut tree in their garden everyday to pluck coconuts for them. Due to her fear of heights, she requested termination of this employment.

She was then transferred to another employer who required her to care for an elderly. She was asked to leave after one month after the elderly passed away.

She was then transferred to her third employer whom she worked for three months. In this employment, she was also looking after an elderly person suffering from dementia. As the elderly's condition deteriorated and showed unmanageable behavioural problems, the family decided to send her to a nursing home. So my domestic helper had her employment terminated for the third time.

I was her fourth employer and I was surprised that she still has an outstanding loan for seven months with the maid agency despite having worked here since September 2006.

It was then that I realised that for every transfer she went through, she incurred an additional loan amount equivalent to two months of her salary. So, after going through three employers before me, she incurred an additional four months' loan (the transfer for the second employment was waived by the agency 'out of goodwill').

In total, she has to pay the agency 13 months of loan despite the fact that some transfers were not initiated by her. These findings brought to light the many unfair practices adopted by maid agencies that domestic helpers are vulnerable to. Hence, she practically has to work for more than a year without drawing a salary in order to pay for her loan.

It is really a shame for an economy that is so reliant on domestic helpers to be treating them so shabbily. I have no hard facts to prove my point, but after asking around, this practice of charging domestic helpers for transfers seems to be a common practice engaged by maid agencies.

If that is true, my question is whether maid agencies are profiting lucratively from transfers of domestic helpers.

Are the administrative fees and other associated costs of a transfer incurred by the agencies equivalent to an average of two months of the domestic helper's salary?

What makes these domestic helpers even more vulnerable is their low education level. The majority of them do not know their rights as a domestic helper. Is there any orientation for foreign domestic helpers by the Ministry of Manpower to educate them on their rights?

Many of them are just helpless victims in this whole situation. For a country which has always taken pride in being a nation with strong integrity and ethical principles, how do we explain the way we are treating our fellow human beings who come here to work under very challenging circumstances?

Lastly, I was also surprised that many of the maid agencies are awarded 'Case accreditation'. How stringent is the accreditation process and what criteria are being used as a benchmark?
From the type of service that I received from the maid agency, I am doubtful about justification for its accreditation.

For example, three weeks after bringing my domestic helper home, I still have not heard from the agency about collection of her personal documents, which was promised to be completed by the first week.

I hope this has brought to light many gaps in our process of bringing in foreign domestic helpers whom we are so reliant on.

Doreen Yeo Sai Ching (Miss)


When I read this letter, it struck me that it had many similarities with the plight of modern day "slaves" in New York City. Here are a couple of excerpts taken from this website:

"Each illegal immigrant owes a snakehead alien smuggler US$20,000. In order to get together the money to pay back this debt, they will take any job, no matter how miserable and difficult. They work in restaurants, and in factories for about US$1000 per month.

Paying off the debt means that, in effect, they have to work for the snakehead for at least three years before they can save any money on their own. Their working hours are long -- they can even think about and don't have the time anyways to go study English. Most of them are poorly educated peasants who can't even speak the Chinese national standard Mandarin dialect well, much less learn a foreign language.

They only have two dreams. First, they want to pay off their debt to the snakehead as rapidly as possible, then to accumulate savings for a few years until they can buy and operate their own restaurant."



"In addition to the Immigrant Services Company, there is another agency which plays a large role in this new immigrant society. That is the Employment Agency. There are dozens of employment agencies in the East Broadway area of Little Fuzhou.

"Restaurants, helpers, odd jobs, out-of-state -- many, many jobs await you". When they hear this announcement, many people go inside to sign up with the employment agency. Illegal immigrants who have no friends or relatives to help them must depend upon the employment agency.


Although one might think that because it is called an employment agency its purpose is to help workers find jobs, it would be more accurate to put it the other way around -- the role of the employment agency is to help bosses find workers. This is why many of the new immigrants from Fuzhou are dissatisfied with the employment agencies. The employment agency charges workers six percent of a month's salary just for accepting their application.

Even if the applicant is fired after a few days and is never paid, the employment agency won't refund the application fee. Naturally, from an employment agency business perspective, the faster workers are fired the better -- because the agency can then recommend another person for the same job and take six percent of that person's first monthly paycheck as well.

Many of the positions are for ordinary laborers -- just the sort of job the new immigrants from Fuzhou can do best. The boss often never pays the workers, the employment agency pockets the fee for introducing the worker to the employer, and the only one who makes nothing from the deal is the poor worker."

The difference is that in Singapore, it is not illegal while in New York City, it is.

Sad, isn't it?

8 comments:

Dr Oz bloke said...

Doreen commented : "It is really a shame for an economy that is so reliant on domestic helpers to be treating them so shabbily."

I wonder why is Singapore's economy so reliant on domestic helpers? Singaporeans have no ability to do housework?

How do other countries cope?

Personally I think Doreen has got it wrong. Her statement should be "It is really a shame for an economy that exploits domestic helpers to be treating them so shabbily."

Jessica said...

Hi, you can choose to remain anonymous. That's fine! We will not print your name. If you prefer to answer my questions here, that's fine as well. Just hope to get some comments from you! You could also send me an email, and I'll definitely protect your privacy.

aliendoc said...

dr oz: Having lived several years in the US, I coped without a maid. It was not easy, but it's survival. You just do it. It's certainly not impossible.
But Singaporeans have been spoilt by the cheap domestic help available, & I don't begrudge them that, as it does make life more pleasant & frees up time for leisure & for kids especially for working parents. Having said that, I see many parents who are over reliant on maids to do EVERY SINGLE THING for them, so that the maids become more of a parent to the children than the employers!

MOM really needs to take a closer look at regulating the agencies closer so that they don't exploit the poor maids. And what about the CPF levy??? I wish that money would go back to the maids in some way, perhaps as a form of savings which they can take back when they return to their country.

Dr Oz bloke said...

"But Singaporeans have been spoilt by the cheap domestic help available,"

Exactly. That's called exploitation.

I too do not have a maid. I wash the toilet and mop the floor, iron the clothes etc.

But at a recent discussion at SMA forum I was told it is unbecoming of me to wash my own toilet and I am an idiot not to hire a maid!

I guess this has been ingrained in Singaporeans already. It is part of Singaporeans' way of life.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi aliendoc/droz:
Singaporeans need maids so much yet abuse them so much!
By abusing them, it makes them feel that they are not so small. At least there is someone else lower than them in the pecking order!
Who defends the defenseless? Not the MOM or any govt agencies. I realise that govt only does things to get votes and to ensure that they carry on being the ruling party. So, because giving maids fair pay/fair conditions will incur the wrath of the small people in our midst, they will just let the defenseless exploited!
Imagine working without any compulsory leave or rest day!
Modern day slavery right in our beautiful city!

aliendoc said...

Hi Dr Huang, Sad isn't it, that a "civilised" society like ours still treat fellow human beings like that.

Anonymous said...

Hi.. I am currently doing a report on unethical maid adgency in Singapore. It will be glad if you can provide me with the name of the agency ...

aliendoc said...

hi anonymous 9:10 - I don't have the name of the agencey as this was a letter taken from the straits times. But I am sure that if you check with anyone who employs a maid, 8 out of 10 times, the story will be the same with exorbitant transfer fees so that the poor girl ends up getting $10 - 20 a month for six months or even more to pay off the fees