SINGAPORE: It was a passing comment by the maid employed by a teenage boy's family that sparked a new business idea three years ago.
“I told him that I heard my friend say that she wanted to find a place to board her dog when she goes overseas, but the shop’s charges were very expensive – $50 per day. And they put (the dogs) inside cages,” said Maria (not her real name), the maid.
This inspired Michael (not his real name) to start a home pet boarding business at the age of 16, while still in Secondary 4. He went online to list his services, after checking if his maid was willing to help out with the dog sitting.
Hired by Michael’s parents as a foreign domestic worker, Maria instead spends a large portion of her time at the forefront of the canine boarding operations, while Michael handles the back end communications with clients. And this has been happening in the full knowledge and support of her employers.
Today, she is frequently seen walking a changing assortment of dogs several times a day around her employer’s home in the north of Singapore. Overseeing up to four dogs a time at her home, she still has to tend to her household chores in addition to caring for the pooches.
“I walk each dog twice a day, then I give them 15 minutes just to walk around by themselves. Every time I will pick up their poop,” she shared. “I help to take care when Michael goes to school, but I do everything – bathing the dog and all.”
A dog lover herself, Maria lamented how painful it was to see the dogs come and go. While already finding joy in taking care of the canines that come by, she also receives a cut of the proceeds for her labour, despite being aware of the potential illegality of Michael’s entrepreneurial stint and her role in it.
“I am happy. I have been in Singapore for 16 years already, and I have been with this family for 10 years. My employers here are quite good also – they are very nice to me, and never make me do this and that.”
While she may be personally content with the additional non-domestic roles that were entrusted to her, the same may not be true for other maids in Singapore, who may be coerced into illegal deployment and employment in roles beyond their work permits’ job scope.
A GROWING PROBLEM?
The Internet has fuelled the growth of the burgeoning gig economy – from home-based businesses like baking to e-commerce shops run by ‘mumpreneurs’ (a term for mothers-turned-entrepreneurs), as more choose to earn an income while staying at home.
The HDB’s Home-Based Small Scale Business Scheme allows households to conduct a limited range of commercial activities as long as they do not create problems and inconveniences for the neighbourhood. Maids employed in these households can be easily tapped on to render assistance in the commercial activities.
“This is a problem. The difference between time at work and time at home is being eroded for a lot of people,” said John Gee, former president of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organisation which promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore.
“Even without intentionally taking advantage of a domestic worker, they may slip into a habit of giving her additional work outside the job she was hired to do,” he cautioned.
Renewed attention has been thrown on this issue after a recent report of an employer being fined for allowing two maids to build and ascend scaffolds and conduct painting works at the exterior of her two-storey bungalow.
A first to be convicted for breaching work permit conditions involving the safety of maids since the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act was amended with stiffer penalties in 2012, the domestic workers were deemed to be illegally employed as a scaffolder and maintenance worker. They were also working in an unsafe environment without proper safety training and gear.
Under the act, an employer can be liable to a fine of up to $30,000 or a prison sentence for up to 12 months, or both, for illegal employment.
In Maria’s case, she could be considered as being illegally employed as a pet caretaker.
In addition, it is also forbidden for HDB and private households to engage in pet boarding activities, as special licences have to be obtained from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
SCOPE FOR MORE FLEXIBILITY?
While there is no data tracking this phenomenon, experts believe it is a widespread habit.
After all, one in five households in Singapore employs a foreign domestic worker, with numbers seeing steady increases in recent years.
In 2017 alone, 246,700 maids were hired, according to the latest numbers from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
“I think that most employers are well aware that they should not get their domestic workers to go to work elsewhere or to undertake work that goes beyond their domestic role – notably, by doing work for an employer's business,” said Gee.
For instance, at a home-based business which deals with the sale of sundries at a landed property estate, a maid was seen helping with the receiving and packing of goods at the driveway when Channel NewsAsia visited recently.
“She helps us a little, especially when we are not at home. I don’t see why it’s a problem if everyone is happy,” said the business owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While he is aware of the potential legal tussle that could arise, the employer insisted that her welfare is well taken care of and that she is not made to move heavy objects.
“There should be some flexibility in the rules. It is helpful in our business to have an extra hand when we are in a pinch,” he added. “We also help her with the housework – it goes both ways.”
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
Placing domestic workers under the coverage of the Employment Act is one way to solve the problem, suggested Gee.
“That would give them regular hours: A standard 44 hours, with a maximum of 72 hours overtime a month. And once that framework existed as a protection against exploitation, there would be scope for looking at what flexibility might be allowed within the permitted time frame.”
But allowing maids to work in non-domestic roles could present new complications for lawmakers, as it might create a problem of overworking maids and increase competition in the job market for Singaporeans, he said.
“These cases seem to argue for more flexibility in the regulations. But law and regulations have to set a base line somewhere.”
Part of the issue is that what constitutes domestic and non-domestic work is not clearly defined in legislation, and this can lead to inconsistent enforcement, said Stephanie Chok, Advocacy & Communications Manager for the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME).
Authorities should also ensure there is consistent and adequate enforcement, as well as access to remedial justice for domestic workers.
“HOME regularly sees domestic workers at our shelter who are asked to undertake tasks which fall outside of what one would reasonably assume to constitute domestic work, or to engage in unsafe work,” she added.
For instance, over at Tampines, a private tutor who conducts small-group tuition at her home told Channel NewsAsia that she gets the help of her maid to prepare the tables and serve water to her students.
Well-aware that maids are not supposed to help out in home businesses, she feels that drawing the line between some of these activities is “a grey area".
“My students are no different from guests who visit my home. In fact, my maid always takes the initiative to help my students feel comfortable at my place,” Mdm Tan said.
Her maid, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s not difficult. Madam is nice to me. I want everyone to be happy. Some of my friends have to clean a big bungalow, but I just have to clean one flat. I am quite lucky already.”