Our system of maids is not sustainable

 

I think to start with, all Singaporeans are not bad people. We know that it is impossible to work throughout the month without an off day, we know that good work should be rewarded with good pay. We know that bonuses, time offs, health care and well being are important to any employee.

But when it comes to maids in our homes, we cannot afford it.

Every able-bodied Singaporean is pushed out into the workforce, leaving no one at home to care for our elders and children. Care facilities and transportation are very expensive, so the next most logical option that comes to mind are maids.

Salaries start from $500. The agency would charge a fee of $800 to $1200 and also charge the maid a month’s salary, just for pushing papers around. The Ministry of Manpower would charge you a levy from $60 to $265, depending on what you intend the helper to do.

This gives us a problem in perceiving value. The maid sees her salary as only $500, maybe even less because she needs to pay agents to get here. She may even have to pay corrupt officials in her country to acquire a passport or passport extensions. All new maids have to work for months before they can pocket their first dollar.

On the other hand, employers feel the pinch: their levies, the agencies, their food, their insurance, medical bills etc etc. It can come up to about $800 to a thousand monthly. It’s just like how your salary feels like after tax and CPF – you don’t feel like you’re earning much, but employers feel they’re paying you a lot.

Then there’s the labelling: we’re called “employers”, “bosses”, “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” – but are we really employers? We’re not giving them the protection an ordinary employee is accorded (we can’t really afford it), we’re not giving them any form of progression in their lives. There’s no way they can be promoted and earn anymore. If they’re a maid earning $500 at the age of 23, they’ll still be a maid earning at best $600 at age 43.

There’s also the matriarch phenomenon: the woman in the house will establish herself as the boss and require the maid to be subservient to her. Make up, long hair, fancy clothes and other, normally feminine behaviour is prohibited or discouraged.

Then the Ministry of Manpower requires employers to put up a $5,000 security deposit. If maids become pregnant, gets injured or killed, this bond is forfeited. This has caused employers to become obsessed about what their maids are up to on their off days. Many have even prevented their maids from going on off days altogether…. just in case.

There is a lot of friction in the system. Quarrels, theft, murders, battery, abuse, suicides – all this is the compound effect of becoming reliant on maids and a mass of employers who actually see themselves as bosses. Those who want to pay more and give more are unable, if we can do all that we might as well shift our elders and children to proper care centers.

The solution isn’t simple: there needs to be stronger support systems for our dependants, or people have to be encouraged to stay at home to care for the family…just like the good old days. Either way, it means less money for the family – either taxes have to increase, or income has to decrease. There is no other way to do this.

About the author

Tay Leong Tan

Tay Leong Tan is a collective of 3 writers. Tay, Leong and Tan. (Who were you expecting?!) We are enthusiastic about labour issues, economics and current affairs in particular.

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