IN FOCUS: Will rising costs and reduced availability change Singapore's relationship with maids?
With COVID-19 creating short-term bottlenecks in availability and experts suggesting that longer-term issues such as rising costs will become more significant over time, CNA looks at the potential implications of these changing dynamics.
SINGAPORE: All weekends and public holidays off, access to a Netflix account, and in one case, an overnight stay with her boyfriend on her birthday.
These are some of the requests that potential employers have received from transfer maids they were looking to hire recently. When these requests were not met, the maids turned down the job offers.
Maid agencies and employers told CNA it is currently an employees’ market, with a lower supply of transfer maids at a time when it is more expensive to bring someone in from overseas.
The shifting dynamics between employer and maid, currently influenced by the pandemic, are likely to continue in the near future, with some source countries moving to better protect their citizens.
Indonesia is looking to implement a "zero placement fee" policy which will mean a debt-free start for domestic workers coming to work in Singapore, possibly at the expense of employers paying more. At the same time, the supply of maids may shrink, with next to no maids coming from Myanmar as a result of both COVID-19 and the military coup.
In the longer term, some analysts said that the income gap between Singapore and source countries could become smaller, driving up the wages of maids and eventually becoming a barrier for middle-income families wanting to hire a domestic worker.
Continued reliance on low-wage maids is unsustainable in the face of rapid economic growth in source countries which are generally expected to catch up to Singapore over the next few decades, said Associate Professor of Economics Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
"If this income gap narrows, it will be much less attractive for domestic workers to come to Singapore to work," he said.
"What will likely happen over time is that the wages of domestic workers will rise as it gets harder to find such workers, and domestic workers will get priced out of reach of middle-class households."
Yale-NUS College Associate Professor Anju Mary Paul echoed the view that if the reliance on maids continues unabated, one thing that could happen, which she said “wouldn’t be a bad thing”, is that their wages could go up.
This could lead to some families trying to make do without a maid, said the international migration scholar.
READ: Demand for new maids high despite extra costs amid COVID-19 restrictions, risk of imported cases
She cautioned, however, that one thing that should not happen is a step back to a time when women would feel compelled to leave the labour force in order to shoulder their domestic caregiving responsibilities.
What needs to happen instead are “difficult but necessary conversations within the family and also within the nation” about how to divide up the load of care more equitably, she said.
HIRING A MAID AMID A PANDEMIC
Mr David Bensadon, director of maid agency We Are Caring, said that many employers are trying to find transfer maids to avoid paying for stay-home notice and COVID-19 tests - costs that would be incurred at the moment if they hired someone from overseas.
“It’s more costly to bring someone from abroad for employers, so many of them are looking for transfer helpers and the supply of transfer helpers is limited,” he said. For example, the cost of hiring someone from the Philippines is now about S$4,000, up from S$2,400 pre-COVID-19, he said.
At the same time, some current employers are reluctant to release their maids because they are not sure if they can find a replacement, he added.
“The number of (transfer) helpers is limited and that influences the balance of power in terms of salary negotiation for the helpers,” he said.
Employers who spoke to CNA said these maids can command a salary of up to S$1,100 per month in the current climate. Previously, they would generally get about S$800 with a good record.
Mr Matthew Lee, manager at Raymond Maids Employment Agency, echoed the view that the number of transfer maids is limited.
"The ones who are available, they know they are in demand," he said.
Such dynamics have become a turn-off for some potential employers, who are assessing whether the extra expense is worth it.
MAIDLESS? WHY NOT?
One of them is Ms Tang (not her real name), who is about to give up having maids after employing one for more than 10 years.
Ms Tang hired a maid to take care of her dog when her job as a lawyer and her husband's job as an oil trader didn't allow them to take their golden retriever for frequent walks. But with her job being less hectic now and as she is able to work from home for the most part, Ms Tang has decided to go without a maid after her current employee goes back to tend to her ill mother.
"Getting help has been convenient all these years until this whole COVID thing happened and it became quite hard to get a replacement," she said.
Apart from the hassle, the additional costs have played a part in her decision.
"All the costs stack up. I can't say it's exorbitant, but it is sizable and if the person has tested positive and comes in, your obligation can be quite a lot,” she said.
The insurance does not really seem to cover all the risks, she added, and if there are high out-of-pocket costs, she would not want to part with her money for "someone I don't even know".
She added that the insurance only covers a stay in a public hospital, but the choice of hospital is not up to the employer. After taking all the costs into consideration, it is a risk to employ a maid from overseas in the case that she arrives and wants to transfer out of the home shortly after, she said, having experienced that scenario before.
The new employer would have to pay nothing, and any upfront costs paid by her would have gone to waste, she said.
“All these things really made me think of going independent."
However, at first, Ms Tang decided she would like a replacement for her current maid. She interviewed almost 20 women - mostly transfer maids - last month. They were not a good fit for her household, she said, because of their demands.
"I interviewed one, she said she wants Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays off. Then I'm like, what's left for me?” she asked, adding that those are the days she herself would get to have a break.
"Some of them tell you they want Wi-Fi, Netflix, I want all this free. I don't even subscribe to Netflix and so what should I do? Subscribe so you can have it?"
Another potential employee told her that she would like her boyfriend to stay overnight with her in the home on her birthday.
With her decision made, Ms Tang has turned to gadgets like a robot vacuum, an air fryer and a steam oven to help with household tasks like cleaning and cooking.
"When you don't have a live-in helper, your standards have to drop. You have to wash the bathroom probably twice a week instead of every day,” she said.
While Mr Bensadon said that the “premium” price of flying in a maid is making some potential employers hesitant, Mr Lee said he is not seeing the same trend. As far as his company is concerned, additional costs have not deterred employers, Mr Lee said.
"The demand is quite inelastic," he said, although he added that employers are now more "meticulous" in their selection process.
Employers are also willing to wait out a longer processing time amid the pandemic, with Singapore requiring a new pre-entry approval and source countries having more administrative issues, Mr Lee said.
The maids from overseas now take an additional month or more to start work here. Myanmar maids are also harder to come by now, with both the ongoing pandemic and political turmoil there.
Despite the barriers to hiring a maid now, there are many people who still see having one as a necessity. Employers who spoke to CNA gave a variety of reasons why they needed the help.
These include wanting to spend more time with their children instead of doing household chores, having to take care of children with special needs, as well as having little to no help from spouses.
For those with elderly or disabled relatives to take care of, there is a need to have someone around all the time providing care when they are away at work.
A MAID IS ESSENTIAL FOR SOME FAMILIES
For one parent, Ms Tan (not her real name), not being able to get a place in an infant care centre nearby for her four-month-old son is part of the reason she needs a maid.
But more than that, she found that a maid can free up much-needed time for her to do things that matter more, she said.
"There are many household chores. If I have to consider whether I would rather spend the time cleaning or with my children, I would choose the time with my children," she said.
READ: Commentary: Instead of robots or commodities, why not treat foreign domestic workers like fellow human beings?
Ms Tan, who also has a three-year-old daughter, said she initially tried hiring transfer maids to avoid having to pay for COVID-19-related costs.
The first maid she hired lasted two months, and she was without help for a month. The next one she hired also lasted two months. One had a bad work attitude and the other said she could not wash the toilet as it was too tiring, she said.
When she was on the hunt for a third one, she received requests from prospective transfer maids for birthday gifts and a separate room with a bathroom.
"There were also some … who didn't want to stay in the house," she said. They wanted to live in a rental home funded by Ms Tan, which is illegal.
Ms Tan, a financial advisor, said that although she got by without a maid for a month, she did so by not working and forgoing her income.
“Something is still suffering, it’s just which one - is it the house, the kid or the work,” she said, adding that living on a single income is not an option for her and her husband.
Mrs Maria Ang, a mother of three, has had maids for more than 10 years and most recently hired a new one in December.
She employed a maid when her son, now 12 years old, was about two. Before that, her mother cared for her children, including her daughters now aged 19 and 16, but she fell ill. Although she sent her children to a childcare centre when they were younger, this posed its own set of issues which made having a maid necessary, she said.
"They (bosses) were not too pleased that I was taking too many (days of leave), and children fall sick one after another. First this one (falls sick), and then I come back to work for a few days, then the second one, and it goes on and on," she said.
The reason behind her current need for a maid is her youngest son, who has ADHD and autism.
"When he comes back (from school), the helper is around as a companion to him. He likes to talk and talk, and he needs someone to chit chat with, so I think she’s there as a friend to him.”
Others, like Ms Ong, have also encountered problems with hiring transfer maids, with some of them asking for all weekends and public holidays off, she said.
The mother of two cannot afford that as she is looking to return to work in the sales line, which requires her to work on those days, she said.
She added that her husband is “not a very hands-on dad, which is why I require a helper to assist him as well”. She has no family nearby to help with the children, she said.
“The helper can help to pick them up, feed them dinner, get them settled to bed. Without a helper, we have to rush, we have to fight, and when we get home, it’s way over their dinner time, the kids get cranky and the schedule also gets delayed,” she said.
However, some have decided that a maid is not essential, even though they previously employed one.
Ms Geraldine Xiao decided to go without the services of a helper in 2019 and has not seen to change her mind.
She hired a maid in 2018 so there would be someone at home to receive a 13-year-old girl she was fostering with her husband. However, shortly after, the fostering arrangement came to an end and Ms Xiao became pregnant. When her baby turned four months old, they let go of their maid who had been with them for a year. She enrolled her baby in an infant care centre.
"It wasn't a very drastic loss of help," Ms Xiao said.
It also helped that her husband was between jobs at the time, she said. He was jobless for more than a year.
"He is the one who did all the housework because he was available."
When he started working, the couple engaged a part-time cleaner once a week for three hours. They also have a robot vacuum and engaged a tingkat delivery service for dinner.
“This helps (us) to get by,” she said.
Now, with another baby on the way, the couple has no plans to employ another helper and has already made plans to enrol their second child into the same infant care centre.
"We are trying to do it without a helper as much as we can because actually there's a lot of inconvenience. There are a lot more issues to take care of (when we have) a helper," she said.
While she does not see the need for a maid now, she said she is glad she has had the experience, because it made the couple realise they could do without a maid.
If they never had one, it “would always be at the back of my mind whether we should engage a helper”, she said.
"I think what's very important is for the couple to be very hands-on together, to share the house load, to share looking after the kids together," she said.
WHY THE RELIANCE?
One of the reasons Singapore continues to be reliant on foreign domestic workers is that it is still a very patriarchal society where most of the load for childcare and other domestic responsibilities falls on women’s shoulders, said Yale-NUS College Associate Professor Anju Mary Paul.
Women who want to be in the labour force have to work two “shifts”, she said.
“From 9 to 5, they work one job, and they come home and they work another job,” she said, referring to childminding, cooking and housework. She added that more couples now live in nuclear households and may not have relatives to depend on to help with childminding.
Another reason is that the costs of employing a maid are relatively low given the amount of “care labour that you can extract seven days a week", and considering the alternatives, the Assoc Prof said. She added that employers often “default” to the option.
“Singapore’s entire work and school infrastructure works on the assumption that people have a domestic worker, or have some other way to manage their family care responsibilities,” she added.
"It’s that kind of assumption that really encourages families to go with that option, especially when they have young children."
It is difficult to wean the country off its reliance on maids because of such “built-in pressures”, she said.
Assoc Prof Theseira similarly said Singapore's demanding work culture is enabled by the ready availability of maids.
“Without that, Singaporeans would simply not accept the demands placed on them for irregular and extended working hours and employers would find it impossible to enforce,” he said.
“In countries where there are no maids or non-working family members available, nobody questions it when someone has to leave the office at 5pm sharp to pick up the children."
He added that “it is just as true that having maids may increase labour force participation and commitment to work, as it is that Singaporeans hire maids because they are committed to their work”.
Assoc Prof Theseira said domestic labour is one of the oldest economic phenomena, but what may be different about Singapore is the extent to which families are reliant on foreign domestic workers.
"This has been made possible by the combination of the relatively high earnings of Singaporean households, the low earnings of women in neighbouring domestic worker source countries, and government policy which permits such hiring to continue at fairly low wages," he said.
The same exchange does not happen in other countries because those countries often require wages to meet a “minimum standard" for foreign guest workers before they issue visas.
"That automatically makes foreign domestic workers unaffordable or unavailable for the broad middle class."
APPEAL OF HIRING A MAID
Assoc Prof Theseira outlined the appeal of hiring a maid - it frees up the employers from having to do domestic work, allowing them to take up paid work in the job market, and allows them to enjoy a higher level of domestic services than they would otherwise have.
"The difference between what someone can earn in the market and what they have to pay for a domestic worker to take over their domestic work is, in a sense, the gain to the employer from hiring a domestic worker," he said.
Many people place a "low priority" on domestic labour and would prefer to do other things, he noted.
"Everyone wants to play with their children, but not everyone wants to clean up after them. Most households can cope without a maid - after all, how do we think the majority of households in other countries get by - but they find that being able to engage one improves their quality of life, so they do so," he said.
However, he noted that there is a "small" number of households, such as those with significant caregiving needs for the elderly, children or people with disabilities, that do need a maid "in the sense that the other members of the household would find it impossible to do any jobs without one, or simply could not provide a minimum level of care".
The main economic circumstance which has allowed many to hire foreign domestic workers is the large income gap between Singapore and source countries, he explained.
Assoc Prof Paul said that Singapore has introduced measures to make workplaces more family-friendly, adding that there is “a lot more that can be done”.
She gave examples such as more paternity leave and dependent care leave, so people can take care of their aged or sick relatives or children over the age of seven.
“The invisible care work that happens helps the society to function,” she said, adding that parents are raising Singapore's next generation.
“This important work needs to be made more visible,” she said.
Without restriction to flow and increase in their salaries, reducing demand for domestic workers requires providing market alternatives for domestic labour services, Assoc Prof Theseira said.
For example, an important service domestic workers provide families is the supervision of their young children, he said.
“However, having flexible centre-based daycare of childcare services, and flexible working hours will greatly reduce the need to depend on a domestic worker to provide that service,” he said.
The combination of being willing to use market services such as extended childcare, food delivery, home cleaning, and accepting a lower standard of household chores “goes a long way” to reduce the need to hire a maid, he added.
"How many of us would really clean the house so frequently if we had to do it personally and didn't have the ability to pay someone else to do it?" he asked.