Why are so many employers sending back their maids?

It may be the slow maid, pushy agent or demanding employer.

Goh Chin Lian
21 March 2010

When a new maid fails to live up to her employer’s expectations, it may not just be her shortcomings.

The blame could fall on an agent so bent on pushing deals and earning commissions that he overlooks his customer’s needs.

Or the problem could stem from the employer. He may have high expectations of the maid’s ability to understand English and cook well, while also caring for Junior and grandma.

Add to this mix a better-educated maid who knows her rights and will not give in so easily to unreasonable demands.

The end result? Last year, 28 per cent of employers terminated the contracts with their maids within three months.

It was 27 per cent on average from 2005 to last year, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) told The Sunday Times. Only one in five was a first-time employer, it added.

Earlier this month, it outlined measures to tackle the problem in a country where roughly one in every five households has a maid.

The measures: Introduce a template for biodata of maids so employers are better informed; and run a settling-in programme for new maids.

The 196,000 maids largely come from Indonesia and the Philippines, attracted by a monthly pay of $320 to $420.

Employers pay a monthly levy of $265. They give up their new maids for reasons such as they are forgetful, tardy or unhygienic, said Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) president Shirley Ng.

The association represents 528 out of 695 maid agencies here.

Those who let go of an experienced maid complain that she has poor attitude, is always on the phone and gets into boyfriend problems, she added.

But Ms Ng felt the problem can also lie with employers having high expectations.

Employers may also fail to recognise that it will take months for their maids to adapt to a new environment.

What an employer considers as slowness may be the normal pace of kampung life that the maid is used to. Forgetfulness may just be her unfamiliarity with multi-tasking.

Take the case of an employer who accused the new maid of lying when she did not prepare a vegetable dish, recalled the secretary of non-profit group Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Skills Training, Mr. William Chew.

She said there were no more vegetables in the fridge. The employer showed her the bunch of kangkong inside, only to be told by the maid that it was for feeding pigs.

Other issues include young employers being unable – unlike their parents – to speak basic Malay to their Indonesian maid, and employers not giving instructions on how they want things to be done.

Maid agencies also felt that the MOM requirement that maids pass a multiple-choice written English test here does not ensure that they can understand English, and may have negative side effects.

MOM introduced the test in 2005 to raise the quality of first-time maids, who must pass the test here before they can start work.

Maid agencies observed that most agents in the home country now spend more time teaching English to the maids, instead of job skills.

The result? The language proficiency of the maid could be limited to dealing with the sample 400 questions from MOM, and they could have poor housekeeping skills.

On their part, industry folk said maid agencies could do better to understand the needs and backgrounds of their customers.

Caring for a baby is different from, say, looking after an elderly person. A maid who is a mother could be a good babysitter, but to provide elderly care, she should have experience and compassion, Ms Ng said.

Mr. John Gee, president of Transient Workers Count Too, an advocacy group for migrant workers, is in favour of the biodata template, which he said will allow employers to make informed choices.

The MOM is working with maid agency accreditation bodies, like the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) and Case- Trust, to develop the template by June.

But agencies felt that it was one thing to have a template, and another to ensure the biodata is accurate.

Agencies said maids tend to give model answers in order to secure a job, and home-country agents are unable to verify their past work experience.

One way around the problem is for agencies here to make trips overseas to interview and suss out the candidates.

Nation Employment, which used to see 30 per cent of its customers terminate their contracts within three months, has cut the rate to 15 per cent over more than a decade.

It focused on improving the skills of its maids through in-house training after they arrived here, said Nation’s managing director Gary Chin.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, employers need to be understanding.

Housewife Goh Li Lian, 44, for example, said she was tempted last year to change her new maid from Myanmar for being slow, but decided against it.

‘I understand that when the maids first start, we need to have tonnes of patience to give both sides time to adjust to each other. So I stuck it out,’ said Madam Goh, who has had four Indonesian maids, all of whom finished two-year contracts.

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