SINGAPORE - A rare, passionate public debate on a social issue is raging here on how this tiny, affluent Southeast Asian nation treats the thousands of maids or foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in the city-state.
While some focus on whether these women should get a mandatory day off each week, others argue it is more important to clean up the maid agency industry, which appears to be exploiting poor women from neighboring countries by charging them exorbitant fees to work here.
The debate started more than two months ago when local newspaper Today began publishing letters from FDWs complaining about ill treatment and a lack of days off.
It gathered steam three weeks ago when Association of Employment Agencies (AEAS) president Angland Seah said in an interview with the paper that his organization would like to see a provision for four off days a month incorporated into all new FDWs' job contracts.
Since that call was made, Today claims that employment agencies have been deluged with calls from maids who want the weekly off day incorporated into their contracts immediately, while many employers have threatened to take their business to agencies that are not AEAS members. Letters to newspapers responding to the issue have been mixed.
"For goodness sake, these people are maids," wrote letter writer Edwin Wong. "They are from other countries and have willingly accepted our terms and conditions to be a FDW. We didn't force them."
Writer Stephanie Thio observed, "For a civilized country, Singapore seems to have a disproportionately large number of maid-abuse cases. I think this is because Singaporeans have allowed themselves to accept the idea that foreign domestic helpers are a slightly lesser breed. So we don't accord them the same standard of humanity that we do to others in our lives. This mindset needs to be changed."
Recently, courts have started jailing maid abusers (all women), including a teacher who was sentenced to six weeks behind bars. Previously, those found guilty only received fines.
Police say the number of reported abuse cases has dropped from 157 in 1997 to 59 last year because of the court cases. But activists argue those numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because many FDWs are afraid to report abuse to the police.
Indonesian maid Alfath Ruminanar, 26, was one who did go to the police. She told Inter Press Service that when she complained to her employment agency about abuse people there asked her to pay S$2,000 (US$1,185) to finance her way home.
Ruminanar injured her hand at work but both her employer and the agency wanted her to keep on working. When she wanted to take sick leave, they kept her salary to pay the government levy, which the employer is supposed to pay each month for having a FDW.
Now with the help of the voluntary agency Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), Ruminanar is suing the employment agency for compensation. "After working for nine months here I have earned only S$700," she said. "The agency took seven months of my pay [as commission]."
After having been abused for many months by her employer, Filipino maid Judilyn also complained to the police. "Madam always beat me, shouted in Chinese, and finally burned my leg. That is when I went to the police," she told IPS.
"I have worked for seven months here, and got only one month's pay to take back home. I borrowed P9,500 [US$171] in the Philippines to come here; the agency kept six months pay because they said I signed with them [to give that commission]."
Wages for FDWs are dictated by supply and demand. Filipino maids, who often speak some English, usually receive around S$351 a month. Sri Lankans, most with some education and English ability, get S$247, and the villagers who comprise the bulk of Indonesian FDWs are paid S$197. In addition, the employer pays the S$195 monthly levy to the government.
While the Employment Agencies Act of 2000 stipulates that agencies can only take 10% of a FDW's first month's salary, and another S$5 as a commission, social worker Jolovan Wham of HOME said in an interview it is the norm for agencies to take between three and six months of a FDW's salary as commission.
He also pointed out that in the Philippines, under the Overseas Employment Administration Act, agents are only allowed to take one month's salary, plus administration costs, for placing FDWs.
In February, HOME set up Singapore's first non-profit maid's agency - Star Home Personnel - which charges only one month's salary as commission.
"We are trying to keep costs as low as possible, so that we don't exploit and profit from [FDWs] poverty," said Wham. But, he added, when the new body tried to find an agent in Indonesia to provide them with maids the person wanted at least S$1,400 dollars as commission. "When we asked why, they said that they have to bribe officials to get the necessary papers for a maid to come here," he explained.
Thus, it seems there are problems at the other end, in Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. However, Wham argued that most maid agencies in Singapore have a culture of treating FDWs as subservient, and train them to "say 'yes' to ma'am" all the time. "They are interested in the employer's business not the maid's welfare," he said.
In this cut-throat industry, agencies advertise "no fee" placements, when legislation requires that the employer pay for the FDW's return airfare at the end of the two-year contract, for medical insurance and for six monthly tests, including a test for AIDS.
"How did it become the norm that maids must work for months on end without sniffing a cent of their salary?" asked Alan John, writing in the Straits Times newspaper. "And, all the time, these women are expected to set homesickness aside, wear a happy face, stay motivated, learn to fit in with a new family in a new country, and prove they are worth keeping."
Rather than debating about whether a maid should get a day off per week, what needs to be done is to eradicate the "cruel desire to extract the maximum to make their maid worth her salary and levy", argued John.
Not all maids are badly treated. Many local employers not only give them every Sunday off, but occasionally allow the women to go out on Saturday nights.
Filipino maid Rhia is one of these lucky ones. She told IPS that every alternate Saturday night she is allowed to go out with her local boyfriend, in addition to spending every Sunday with him. Her employer also treats her as part of the family - she sits down to meals with their extended family, and the children call her "aunty".
Sri Lankan expatriate Surani said she has never used an agency to find her Sri Lankan maids. She recruits them through her family connections in Colombo, pays their airfare and all fees for processing papers here. "The maid receives her full salary from the very first day she starts work here," Surani told IPS. "Many Sri Lankan expats I know do the same."