Nov 19, 2012

Singapore - Singapore Urged to Improve Foreign Maids' Work Conditions

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Singapore. Singapore may have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to draw 100,000 more foreign maids by 2030 if it does not do anything about work conditions and match what employers elsewhere are offering.

This is the view of agents, academics and migrant worker activists, reacting to estimates released in an occasional paper by the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) last week.

There were 208,400 maids in June this year compared to 198,000 at the end of last year. Most come from Indonesia and the Philippines.

The experts pointed out that apart from maids flocking to Taiwan and Hong Kong for better working conditions, the countries they come from have also made it harder to source for maids.

The NPTD paper indeed noted that even if demand goes up, it might not necessarily be met, as the maid supply could be curbed by growing demand elsewhere.

It estimated Singapore will need 300,000 maids by 2030 based on an expected rise in resident households with young or elderly members, and those where both spouses work.

Of all resident households with at least one maid last year, seven in 10 had both spouses working and three-quarters had young and/or elderly family members.

More elderly, non-working households are also hiring — 12 percent of such households had maids last year, up from 6 percent in 2000.

Agents said the opening up of new sources for maids such as Cambodia can help meet some of the demand.

But they foresee that Indonesia and the Philippines will remain as top draws because their citizens have a relatively stronger command of English.

But maids from Indonesia and the Philippines are similarly coveted in Hong Kong and Taiwan where monthly salaries of S$700 (US$570) to S$850 (US$693) are almost double the S$450 (US$367) which most maids here get.

Singapore has to act fast to improve the lot of maids or it will be viewed as a "stepping stone to greener pastures," said Bridget Tan, chief executive of migrant workers rights group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (Home). Maids can use their stints here to hone English and work skills.

Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, vice-president of migrant workers group Transient Workers Count Too, said that Singapore can fight back by raising maid salaries. She added that an effective way is to have a minimum wage of $600 (US$489).

Maids in Hong Kong are guaranteed a minimum HK$3,920 (US$505) a month, with at least one day off a week.

Maids' pay in Singapore is linked to market forces and individual employers and maids, with some earning less than the market rate of US$367.

Noorashikin said employment contracts in Singapore do not spell out maid responsibilities clearly and this makes it difficult for them to get paid more.

"It is only right that they are paid extra if they are hired to perform caregiver tasks but end up also doing domestic work," she added.

If Singapore has trouble attracting maids, some point out that harnessing technology is another option.

Orange Employment Agency owner Shirley Ng suggested Singapore develop robots which can do household chores, and build high-tech retirement villages wired with online alarm systems which residents can sound when they need help.

Ultimately though, the employment rights of maids need to be improved, the experts said, as maids will go to countries which respect them as individuals.

Unlike Singapore, maids in Hong Kong are covered by labor laws assuring them of a weekly rest day, public holidays and maternity leave.

Professor Kayoko Ueno, who has studied domestic workers for a decade, said her interviews with maids here reveal that their bosses do not take giving them weekly days off seriously.

"Employers in Hong Kong won't let their domestic workers do even 10 minutes of housework on their days off. But domestic workers in Singapore tell me that their employers will ask them to do half a day of work before they rest," she said.

Prof Ueno, who teaches at the University of Tokushima in Japan, noted, however, that Singapore is moving in the right direction by introducing a compulsory weekly day off policy from Jan 1.

Home's Tan said: "We need to look at social support services like recreational facilities which they can use on rest days and also training courses to help them carve out better futures when they return home."

Amelia Tan

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times

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