SINGAPORE: With borders closed to contain the spread of COVID-19, the focus has been on the impact on workers separated from their families while stranded in the country of work.
But there are two groups who have been affected by border closures too: Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) who intend to work in Singapore but are unable to leave their source countries, and the families here who want to hire them.
As a result of a slowdown in the number of incoming FDWs as travel restrictions kick in, the cost of recruiting new FDWs from source countries have also gone up.
Those who come in have to undergo stay-home notice, accruing costs that employers must bear.
With a diminished number of FDWs entering Singapore since the start of the pandemic, households requiring support in caregiving or domestic work have to turn increasingly towards employing “transfer” FDWs already in Singapore.
Before the pandemic, there were more transfer FDWs but these workers were viewed less favourably than new FDWs who had no experience working in Singapore. Now, the number of transfer FDWs has changed – according to recent news reports, there are 20 potential employers for each available transfer FDW.
To meet this increased demand for transfer FDWs, the Manpower Ministry announced in May 2020 a series of amendments to the Employment Agency Licence Conditions (EALC) to better facilitate transfers of FDWs from existing employers to new employers with the help of EAs who will also bear the cost of housing the helper while the transfer is being sorted out.
The latest amendments to the EALC may ease the process of transfer by reducing the financial burden and liability that employers have to bear during the transfer period.
However, the prerequisite to transfer still hinges on the goodwill of employers. Instead of allowing for a transfer, employers might choose to repatriate the FDWs when they no longer require their services.
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Another factor that determines the success of transfer is whether there is a critical mass of employment agencies willing to bear the financial responsibilities during the transfer process and the financial risk of a non-successful transfer.
Employment agencies must foot the repatriation bill if a transfer does not succeed. But there are ways to make it easier for employers and FDWs.
EXTEND THE TRANSFER PERIOD
The search for a new employer is often beyond the control of FDWs and their agencies.
Sometimes, the search may take longer than the currently stipulated 14-day transfer period and the FDWs may end up being repatriated despite efforts to match them to employers.
With the transfer scheme currently being an opt-in one, not all EAs will be part of the pool that can help to effect transfers. A check on MOM’s website reveal that about 500 of such agencies in Singapore have listed their interest to facilitate the transfers of FDWs.
An employer may hand his/her FDW to an EA participating in the scheme, but this EA might not be the original EA who had placed the FDW out for employment. The new EA may find it difficult to assess the FDW’s skills, competencies, job aptitude, and successfully place her out within 14 days.
Where failure to place the FDW within 14 days will incur costs of her repatriation for the agency, many might be incentivised to place FDWs out expeditiously, resulting in possible poorer matches between FDWs and new employers and a greater risk of potential future conflict.
A longer transition period is necessary for a better shot at long-term placement success. There should be more leeway in extending this 14-day window – for instance, with the option to appeal for another two weeks.
MAKE TRANSFERS A COMPULSORY OPTION
Right now, allowing the transfer of FDWs to a new employer is not always the first recourse for employers who no longer require their services.
We have heard anecdotes of FDWs being repatriated by their employers, despite having expressed their wish to continue working in Singapore.
FDWs take on large sums of placement loans and have paid agency fees to work in Singapore. Unilateral repatriation and ignoring the aspirations of the FDWs to continue working in Singapore will make them even more vulnerable.
An ideal situation would be if FDWs are given a chance to continue working in Singapore, and both employers and EAs consider their wishes.
To this end, the authorities should disallow unilateral repatriation of FDWs. Transferring the FDW to a new employer should be the first course of action taken by employers, instead of repatriation.
Mandating compulsory transfer will ensure that there will always be a ready pool of transfer FDWs to be hired.Over time, the industry may see employment agencies more motivated to bring in only qualified and suitable FDWs with better aptitude who can be successfully placed out or transferred to avoid the financial risks of unsuccessful placements.
TREAT THEM LIKE YOUR EMPLOYER TREATS YOU
As employees, we are allowed one to three months of notice before we leave our company.
In a similar vein, we hope employers will inform their FDWs in advance if their contract will not be renewed.
Due to the complexity of finding a new employer because different households have different needs, employers should give at least three months’ notice to their FDWs before their two-year contract is up, to provide FDWs ample time to seek out new employers.
For employers who have to terminate the services of their FDWs if they can no longer afford them when they lose their jobs for instance, instead of simply cancelling their work permits, employers can transfer the FDW to the EA who can then place her in new employment.
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A more effective long-term policy would be for the Change of Employer (COE) consent letter to be scrapped for FDWs who have completed their two-year contract with the same employer.
FDWs should be like any worker – free to explore employment opportunities that may come their way at the end of their contract period.
Employers who wish to retain the services of FDWs should inform them in writing. Both parties should sign a new contract before the old one expires.
Employers who wish to change FDWs can also make use of the three-month (or longer) notice period to source for and interview prospective candidates.
For FDWs who are victims of abuse and unfair employment practices, they automatically should be allowed to seek for new employment without having the need to seek for consent from their current employers being investigated by the authorities.
This is to prevent these FDWs from being “punished twice” by the system when their employers forcefully repatriate them during investigations or when investigations have been initiated.
Any changes in policies will require adjustments to business models and may create some short-term disruptions.
As employers, we do not have to wait until these changes are in play. We can do our part to treat the most vulnerable stakeholder in this equation – the FDW – better, seeking ways to meet their needs as well as ours.
Shamsul Kamar is Executive Director for the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE).