SINGAPORE: A new survey conducted by global market research firm YouGov shows Singaporeans are divided over whether maids in the country should be paid more than S$600 a month, with opinions also split among those in the industry.
A non-governmental organisation (NGO) said maids should be paid more with the extended number of hours they work in a day, while an employment agency association said the figure is fair because the employer covers costs like food, lodging and medical expenses.
Of the 1,060 Singaporeans polled online, 52 per cent think domestic helpers should be paid more than S$600 a month, while the remaining 48 per cent think they should be paid less than S$600 a month.
The sample size was weighted to be nationally representative of Singapore's adult population by age, gender and income.
Singapore has one of the largest populations of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Asia, with 255,800 workers as of June 2019. Hong Kong has about 400,000.
In September 2016, HelperChoice – a platform that connects employers with helpers – analysed data from hundreds of FDW job ads in Singapore and found that the average salary was S$597 a month.
This salary is lower than the average in Hong Kong, but "slightly better" than what domestic helpers in Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia earn, HelperChoice said.
MAIDS BEING OVERWORKED
Still, some of the survey findings highlight that FDWs remain undervalued despite a reliance on them for household and caregiving responsibilities, said Ms Jaya Anil Kumar, case manager at the Singapore-based NGO Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).
"Firstly, domestic workers (in Singapore) may earn a lot more than in their countries of origin. Therefore, it is perceived as acceptable to pay them a low wage," she told CNA. "Secondly, domestic work is usually considered 'informal' work and may be undervalued."
Ms Jaya feels that FDWs in Singapore should be paid more than S$600 a month as they can work up to 16 hours a day.
"Many, especially those with caregiving responsibilities, engage in almost round-the-clock work," she told CNA, pointing out that the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act does not regulate their working hours, although it mandates that they get one off day a week.
"Many domestic workers therefore complain about overwork, and HOME has encountered workers who work between 12 to 16 hours with minimal breaks in between," she said.
"Those who take on specialised caregiving responsibilities may have to continue their duties when the care recipient needs attention, which may be at any time during the day or night."
RISING LIVING COSTS AT HOME
Filipino Racquel Pascual, an FDW who has been working in Singapore for about a decade, said the S$600 a month figure is too "low" as the cost of living in the Philippines has gone up, coupled with a weaker exchange rate.
"I don't have a husband, my family needs more money all the time," the 39-year-old, who is currently earning S$750 a month with her fourth employer, told CNA.
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Ms Pascual said she earned S$450 a month in the first few years of working in Singapore, but has been given multiple raises with her increasing local experience.
Ms Jaya acknowledged there is no "one-size-fits-all solution" when it comes to determining salaries of FDWs, adding that those who have more local experience and specialised skillsets like nursing certificates or eldercare know-how could be paid more.
"However, increasing their salaries overall would go some way in recognising the value of the work they do, as well as the heavy workload that many of them carry, and the assistance they provide to many households in Singapore," she stated.
HOW IS SALARY DECIDED?
Another factor that determines how much an FDW earns is the minimum monthly salary stipulated by the source country, said Association of Employment Agencies president K Jayaprema.
The minimum rate for FDWs from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines is S$450, S$497, S$550 and S$570, respectively.
When deciding how much first-time FDWs should be paid, "agents will take reference from the minimum salary", Ms Jayaprema told CNA, although those with skills and experience can request for more.
HOME's Ms Jaya said it would be "helpful" if Singapore introduces a minimum salary for FDWs that's higher than S$600 a month, pointing out that employees doing similar domestic work – like cleaners – are covered under the Employment Act and entitled to overtime pay and extra pay for working on rest days.
"Stipulating a minimum salary would alleviate the imbalance caused by their exclusion from primary labour legislation," she added.
ALL EXPENSES INCLUDED
But Ms Jayaprema said employers see the S$600 a month salary as a "decent" figure once they factor in provisions like food, accommodation, water, electricity and household items.
"Everybody will say for live-in domestic workers, that’s their comfort, but then again there is a cost," she said, noting that having another person living in the house can cost an extra S$200 a month. "You can't run away from it".
Ms Jayaprema said FDWs are paid the same rate during the first few months of settling in and on-the-job training, and can rest at different times of the day if they are efficient in completing their tasks.
"Everybody harps about the thing that domestic workers start work at 6am, but then when she wakes up in the morning, she’s already at her place at work," she said. "Everybody has to look at it in a holistic manner."
COMPARABLE TO CLEANERS' PAY?
As for comparing FDW salaries to the remuneration for cleaners in the local workforce, Ms Jayaprema said the latter might end up taking home the same amount after daily expenses and Central Provident Fund deductions.
"Those people are taking the bus to work, they have to bring their own food, also working long hours, and they’re only paid about S$1,000 a month," she said.
"I'm getting a domestic worker into my house, she has a very comfortable environment to stay in, she doesn't have to travel, she has got no additional cost at all."
Furthermore, Ms Jayaprema said FDWs can get a raise if employers are satisfied with their service, stating that this usually happens when their contracts are renewed after the initial two years.
"Once domestic workers really skill themselves up and value add to the family in a bigger way, then I think employers don't mind giving some more," she added.
A "FAIR" ARRANGEMENT
Employer Anna Leong, 60, told CNA she has raised the salary of her Myanmar FDW from S$530 to S$600 a month after the first two years, stating that the helper has been reliable and responsible and has cared well for her father-in-law who has dementia.
However, Ms Leong – who works as a leadership coach – said she would not go above S$700 a month as the total cost would then become "pretty expensive", and that other care arrangements like day care might then present a more cost-effective option.
"For the salary, I think S$600 is a reasonable amount," she said. "You have to think of different ways to incentivise them."
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Ms Leong said she would pay for them to attend English, sewing or eldercare courses so they can gain new skills, and give them hongbaos for Chinese New Year and Christmas.
"We cover their full board and lodging and then when they need to go back, we also cover their airfare," she added.
"So if the employer is fair to them, then I think they really take home that amount. The challenge is making it a fair arrangement. They do their part, we do our part, we treat them well – that’s very important."
SALARIES ARE "COMPETITIVE"
The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), which advocates for fair treatment of FDWs in Singapore, told CNA it believes they are paid "competitive salaries" commensurate with their experience and skills, noting that while monetary reward is important, having a good employment relationship with the family is "equally important".
"Some of our FDW friends shared with CDE that even though their salary has not increased a lot over the years, they are happy working for their employer for many years because the trust and strong bond has been built up," its executive director Shamsul Kamar said.
"Some told us they don’t wish to change employers even if they get offered a higher pay elsewhere, because it means they will have to start from ground zero and spend time adapting to the new employer and the family’s way of living. They fear they may not be able to adapt well."
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Nevertheless, Mr Shamsul said it is important for FDWs to learn new skills in areas like caring for those with special needs to increase their employability and command a better salary.
"CDE also urges employers of FDWs to recognise the specialised skills of their FDWs, if any, and pay them in line with market conditions," he added.