Commentary: Is it time for us to explore live-out arrangements for maids?
The pandemic put a squeeze on the supply of migrant domestic workers. As homes become smaller and family needs change, we may need to reconsider how their services fit into our lives, says Cherie Tseng.
SINGAPORE: The shifting compact between Singapore employers and migrant domestic workers (MDWs) has been discussed lately, following a shortage in new maids and extra hiring costs during the pandemic.
News on Sep 7 that employers in Singapore will no longer need to put up a S$7,000 performance bond when hiring a Filipino helper garnered much attention. Comments on social media debated other issues surrounding MDWs, such as salary concerns, working hours and recruitment fees.
There are 246,300 MDWs in Singapore as of end last year, a figure that has been declining since 2019 when there were 261,800 MDWs, according to official data. This means that about one in five Singapore households currently employ a maid.
With three children under 12, a full-time job and a household to run, my husband and I cannot imagine life without a helper. Even in a new era of hybrid work, just having someone to take care of meals and household chores frees us from the daily stresses of life.
That my helper – no thanks to COVID-19 travel restrictions at the time – had to skip attending her only daughter’s graduation in person and mourn her father who died from afar, is evidence of the sacrifice women like her make.
At the height of the pandemic, maid agencies saw an employees’ market with a limited supply of maids, as it was more expensive to bring someone in from overseas.
This put employers on notice. Hiring requests could include weekends and public holidays off, access to a Netflix account and, in one case, an overnight stay with her boyfriend on her birthday.
The common reaction is that these maids are asking for too much. And to be fair to employers, there are workers who will do what they can to milk a situation geared in their favour.
But this is a good time to look deeper into this issue. In my mind, it is not a bad thing that the balance of power has slowly shifted between maids and their employers. For too long, we have come to rely on a relatively cheap source of labour and have treated them as such.
GREAT RESET HAS HIT HOUSEHOLDS TOO
The changing dynamic in households reflects broader shifts in work since the pandemic, from the great resignation wave to quiet quitting, where workers are embracing their bargaining power. Companies, stretched by manpower crunches, are weighing outsourced, freelance options; automation and even role redundancy.
Perhaps employers should think along the same lines in reviewing their relationship with migrant domestic workers. Just as we are demanding higher pay, enhanced perks and better work-life balance, maids are asking for weekends off or to be paid in lieu and having their salaries credited on time.
Just as we expect some things at the workplace to be a given, so should maids. For example, we would assume the company we work for will not disallow us from using our mobile phones, so why do some employers have restrictive phone policies for their helpers? And surely we would not stand for our managers shouting at us when we fall short of a work target or make mistakes.
The disjunct arises from an innate power imbalance between employers and maids in a household. So what if we went further and considered even more drastic structural shifts?
LIVE-OUT ARRANGEMENTS TO EASE THE STRAIN
Earlier this year, there was a report about a small number of domestic helpers who had a “live-out” arrangement with their employers. They went to work like any employee, completed tasks and then went home to their rented apartments.
To be clear, under the Employment of Foreign Manpower (Work Passes) Regulations, maids must stay in the same residence as their employers, and any other residential address must be approved first.
This issue has divided views. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has said there are several downsides to this – a key one is employers will not be able to protect their helpers if anything happens when they live on their own.
But rights group Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) offered a different view. Ms Jaya Anil Kumar, research and advocacy manager at HOME says this sort of work arrangement is worth a look because such an arrangement can make for healthier relationships. She added that the top complaint HOME gets from MDWs is overwork.
You could say this is like a flexi-place, freelance or part-time work arrangement that some of us have with our own work organisation. Add to the fact that our homes are small and getting smaller, an MDW who has her own place might ease the squeeze at home.
BETTER FOR FAMILIES AND FOR MAIDS
In speaking to friends who have had domestic help, it is clear that compared with 10 or 20 years ago, domestic workers too have become more aware and prefer a working arrangement that suits them. In the past, they were happy to be at the mercy of the household which hired them and simply made do.
That this is less the case today signals a “commercialisation” of domestic labour that we may have to confront with sooner rather than later.
There are merits of such a live-out arrangement – for families who need help but also value their privacy, and perhaps even want to instil a sense of independence in their older children. Research shows that children who do chores regularly are more empathetic and become better custodians of their environment.
The bulk of negative online feedback on maids include work ethics, having boyfriends and overstepping boundaries. But if the arrangement is simply organised along the work hours agreed upon, then like any employee, the domestic worker takes ownership of her life outside of work.
This may even free employers of the mental distress of dealing with a fraying relationship when the private lives of maids come into play.
Listen: When employees have side hustles does the day job suffer?
For sure, there are costs, infrastructure and legal issues to be ironed out. Realistically, employers will have to factor in things like rent and real estate needs to be set aside for such workers.
But steps are being made in that direction with the MOM’s Household Services Scheme, under which companies hire and provide accommodation for migrant workers who offer part-time cleaning services to households. The scheme was made permanent in September 2021, and expanded to include more services like grocery shopping, car-washing and pet-sitting.
The upshot is that job seekers today prioritise flexible work arrangements and their well-being when looking for new employers. Maids are no different.
If we acknowledge that these shifts are already taking place, simply rejecting them without considering new solutions may lead to more pain for families seeking much needed domestic help in the future.
Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.