Can a Singapore House Cleaning Scheme Reduce Maid Abuse?

In a glance:
  • After a five-year trial, Singapore on September 1 formalized a scheme in which migrant workers clean multiple homes, reducing reliance on resident housemaids. Part-time cleaning is in high demand amid the pandemic due to a shortage of maids.
  • Cleaners, mostly from Burma, have better wages and are less likely to be abused than their home-grown counterparts.
  • However, this scheme does not greatly reduce perceptions of domestic work as modest domestic work. For both maids and part-time cleaners, the risk of abuse continues.

Bo E San, 25, a Burmese immigrant, was unable to find work as a nurse in wealthy Singapore. So she cleaned the houses instead.

Every day, a Yangon University graduate flushes toilets, scrubs floors, and mops kitchens. “Due to low wages and instability in Myanmar, many young people are looking for jobs abroad,” she said.

Poe is among a small but growing number of house cleaners under the Household Services Scheme (HSS), a five-year program that allows companies to hire migrant workers from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka to provide part-time cleaning services to families.

This system is primarily designed to meet the demand for part-time assistance, thus reducing Singapore’s dependence on foreign domestic workers, called maids.

The number of maids in Singapore has grown by about 40% in the past decade, with more than 250,000 maids in the city-state as of 2018. “It is not sustainable for the number of foreign domestic workers to grow unchecked,” the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said.

Over the years, 1.4 million households in Singapore have become highly dependent on maids for household chores, cooking, and caring for the elderly, children and pets. These maids mostly come from poor Asian countries and do not enjoy the same wages and privileges as Singaporean workers.

HSS schema is different. By formalizing domestic work, it gives cleaners better wages and rights that maids do not currently have.

Burmese immigrant Poe Ei San, 25, is among a small but growing number of house cleaners in Singapore hired under the newly established permanent home services scheme.
Zachary Tang

alternative profession

Amidst maid shortages caused by tightening borders from COVID-19, Singapore on September 1 made HSS permanent and expanded it beyond house cleaning to include more part-time services, such as grocery shopping, car wash and pet care, MOM on August 23. It also allowed companies to hire cleaners from Cambodia. HSS cleaners now serve more than 10,000 households.

Managing Director Chung Jingjing said former Burmese maids make up 90% of the cleaners at Helpling, an HSS cleaner booking platform used by about 40 companies in the programme.

Dominic Lim, director of sales and marketing for cleaning company Fresh Cleaning, added that there is a good awareness in Burmese society of a cleaner job as an alternative to being a maid. Myanmar is an important source of maids for Singapore.

Unlike maids, HSS cleaners serve multiple homes, live in their own dwellings, and are protected by the Employment Act, which mandates a maximum of 44 hours per week, at least 1.5 times overtime pay, seven days of annual leave, and 14 days Sick and one day off a week.

Maids are subject to regulations that simply call for “acceptable” accommodation and “adequate” rest. The Ministry of Manpower, which declined to give interviews, said on its website that “it is difficult to apply the provisions of the employment law to domestic workers because they work in a home environment and the habits of families vary.”

Experts say the side benefits of HSS are higher pay, stronger protection, and fewer opportunities for maid cleaners to be abused. However, these benefits are limited by the small number of cleaners, which Zhong of Helpling estimates to be only 1,000 to 2,000. There are no official statistics.

Furthermore, the Health and Security Act does not address the perceptions of migrant workers as inferior and that domestic work is low, two of the primary causes of abuse of domestic workers. As a result, cleaners, like maids, are still at risk.

Cleaning supervisor Phyo Phyo Ei, 36, worked as a maid in Singapore for nearly a decade before switching to house cleaning. As a maid, the employer is talking to you. But customers see you coming to help them. “They are grateful to have you there,” she says.
Zachary Tang

Enter the cleaner

As of 2019, 1 in 5 households in Singapore employs a maid, up from about 1 in 13 three decades ago. For largely dual-income families in the affluent country, maids are a common way to outsource household tasks until the women can work.

Four cleaning companies interviewed said the tightening of border controls brought about by the novel coronavirus has limited the flow of maids and caused an increase in demand for part-time cleaning. According to former Minister of Manpower Teo, the number of companies operating in HSS jumped from 50 in 2019 to 76 in 2021.

Helpling’s clients used to be expats but now mainly include Singaporeans, particularly younger families who live in government apartments on newer properties such as Bongol and Choa Cho Kang.

Another cleaning company, United Channel Construction & Facility Services, whose clients are mostly condominium residents, said some clients often book cleaners for five days a week. The company, which also operates a maid agency that specializes in Burmese maids, said many clients who hired part-time cleaners while waiting for maids to become available have since become converts. Manager Flora Sha said they love having their home to themselves, without having to allocate food and food for an extra person.

But while the pandemic has increased demand for part-time cleaning, most companies have agreed that this will end once borders open and maids – or illegal cleaners from neighboring countries – return, effectively halting any possibility that the scheme could improve workers’ welfare Households are widespread.

Already, a pilot scheme to increase the supply of maids has been launched, with the first batch of more than 100 maids arriving in Singapore in August; About 2,000 families have expressed interest.

Phyo Phyo Ei earns 1,000 Singapore dollars ($735) — double her old salary, but half of it is spent on food, public transportation, and necessities. “Even though my savings end up the same way, I’d rather be a cleaner for freedom,” she says.
Zachary Tang

Financial issues

Tan Hui Bin, COO of A1 cleaning company, said raising the salaries of maids could be an effective way to maintain demand for cleaners at HSS, because the price difference is lower. Companies offer part-time home cleaning for around S$20-25 ($15-18 USD) an hour, with shifts ranging from two to eight hours.

While maids earn a fixed salary, cleaners’ salaries include base salary, food and transportation allowances, overtime wages, and incentives. As a result, their total wage could be double or triple that of a maid.

A three-hour weekly house cleaning package costs around S$240-300 ($175-220 USD) per month, while a full-time maid costs around S$450-650 ($330-480) per month.

“The cost of a part-time cleaner is still very high compared to the helper who lives at home, which I raised in Parliament,” said MP Louis Ng. “We need a level playing field, which is why I advocate cleaning subsidies similar to those for maids, with families with seniors and children paying less.”

A spokesperson for the Humanitarian Organization for the Economics of Migration (HOME) said there was “no way” HSS cleaners could replace maids, because Singaporeans “are accustomed to enjoying helping domestic workers in multiple roles – babysitting, pet care, cooking, and housekeeping.” Car cleaning – for a very low fee. The average household income in Singapore in 2020 was 7,744 Singapore dollars (5,700 USD) per month.

Video Poe Ei San calling her boyfriend, a Burmese migrant worker in Malaysia, after work. Unlike maids, cleaners have complete independence in their activities once they are out of service.
Zachary Tang

Side benefits

Although unintended, one of the main benefits of the HSS model is the lower risk of abuse. Law experts and welfare groups said the health support system eliminates the living factor that makes maids vulnerable to abuse, as they can be isolated and denied access to the phone.

Amarjit Singh Siddhu, a lawyer who handles maid abuse cases, said cleaners have greater interaction with the community, providing more opportunities to report abuse.

Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, added that living separately from the families they work for also reduces the chances of abuse and misuse of cleaners. He added that by distinguishing more clearly between their place of residence and workplace, the rights, welfare and interests of cleaners can be better protected.

The abuse of maids in Singapore has been in the spotlight in recent years after a series of high-profile cases, the latest of which was the death of 24-year-old maid, Biang Nghe Don. Between 2017 and 2020, there were about 270 reports of abuse of maids to the police each year.

They are career risks that Bo, a university graduate, realizes, after reading the news in February of Piang’s death. The maid suffered 14 months of torture and starvation: she was burned, beaten and suffocated, she lost 15 kilograms, and in her last nights she slept on the floor chained to a window grill.

Bo was working as a waitress at a hotel in central Myanmar and planning a job in Singapore when she saw the headlines. “I didn’t want to be a maid anymore,” she said. “No one will know if your employer is bullying you.”

The HSS scheme has been expanded to include grocery shopping, pet care, and car washes. In the future, it may even include caregiving.
Zachary Tang

humble work

A HOME spokesperson said that although working conditions have improved, HSS cleaners are still subject to unscrupulous employers. The organization assists about 10 to 20 cleaning workers annually on issues such as overwork and unpaid wages.

She added that the abuse of domestic workers and cleaners stemmed from attitudes that devalue domestic work and view immigrants as inferior.

Many employers feel that migrant workers should be grateful for a job. “There is a sense of worker ownership,” she said. “Abuse arises because employers undervalue domestic work and the domestic worker.”

The cleaning companies interviewed said they had not seen instances of physical abuse, although some say verbal abuse does occur. About 700 customers are on Helpling’s blacklist due to abusive behavior and failure to pay bills, while the United Channel said 30% of customers yell at cleaners.

Because of their reduced isolation, a HOME spokesperson said, cleaners may experience less abuse than domestic workers. But one way to eliminate abuse is to honor domestic work.

To do this, people must see the value of such work in helping society to function smoothly. She added that amid a shortage of maids, some Singaporeans have realized how dependent they are on domestic workers.

The Ministry of Manpower said it will assess whether the scope of HSS services can be expanded in the future. Earlier this year, former Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo said caregiving could be one such service — but there are concerns in some quarters about the risks of abuse.

Margaret Thomas, president of the Women’s Association for Work and Research, said domestic workers who take care of elderly people are often extremely tired and vulnerable to abuse from their concerns, particularly those with dementia.

These dementia patients can be violent, throwing things and pulling caregivers’ hair, Sha, director of the United Channel, said.

Despite these warnings, Poe is excited about the potential for sponsorship. She still dreams of becoming a nurse and hopes some caregiving experiences will help her secure a job in a Burmese hospital when she returns home.

“I know old people may offend me,” she said, “but I will be patient with them.” “Under HSS, the company is responsible for the employees, so I’m sure it’s still better than being a maid.” – Rappler.com

This story was supported by funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

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