Friday, February 13, 2009

Are we mistreating our maids? A comparison between maids in London and Singapore

I was speaking to a colleague the other day about hiring of maids and she was appalled that how Singaporeans treat theirs.

Let me just provide you with some context before you jump into any conclusion. Over here in the UK, maids, nannies or any help hired are considered as employees and the hirer are considered as employers.

As employees, they are entitled to full benefits, which include the statutory number of leave days, paid medical leave and maternity leave. On the other hand, the employers are liable to contribute to National Insurance contribution and other employment related taxes submitted on their maids' behalf.

Furthermore, many hired maids are 'specialists' in the sense that they either do household chores or look after the kids, rarely both.
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Also...
Maids wanted - Will pay good wages
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As a result, many mothers (and increasingly fathers) choose to stay at home while their higher earning spouse put bread on the table. That makes much sense as the increase in earnings if both spouses work would only go towards paying for the maid and the nanny. We are not even considering the loss of quality time spent with their children.

Singapore+maids+london+ukSingapore, on the other hand, sees maids as cheap labour. The typical wage paid to a maid (most likely to be a foreigner) per month typically hovers at S$400. That is a mere 10% of the monthly salary of a maid in London. Not only that, the Singaporean maid is expected to look after the kids and do household chores.

The Singaporean employer is ultimately responsible to provide for the maid's health costs but here comes the shocker - maids in Singapore will be repatriated if they got pregnant while working in Singapore and there is absolutely no maternity benefits to speak of. That is what appalled my Londoner colleague.

I'm not sure whether its their relatively low employment costs but there were some well publicized incidents about employers mistreating their maids in Singapore, many of which involved physical abuses. Although the errant employees are shamed publicly and had jail sentences slapped on them, the attitude towards these hired help remained rather indifferent.

The relatively high cost of living of today comes at a price. Ultimately, it's a zero sum game and at the end of the day, we'll have to ask ourselves whether it's worth it.

Any thoughts?

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29 comments:

SheR. said...

I do agree that the cost of hiring a maid in Singapore is way lower. But hey think about it, our salaries are not exactly as high as our London counterparts, yeah? So standard of living is different.

My brother is hiring one soon with the arrival of the Little Haley my niece. And as director of a MNC company, he still needs to scrimp and save because of the extra cost of hiring a maid.

I would say those people who mistreat their maids have that barbaric tendencies in them. They have those age-old slaves belief and I wouldn't be surprised that they would love to own slaves if born in those times.

Sighs.. as long as we know we are not the ones who will mistreat our domestic helpers, that should be all right, non?

C K said...

@SheR,
Even with the difference in living standards is factored in, the maids in S'pore is till paid a pittance, some have their pay withheld by the maid agencies as 'admin' fees.

Also, because of this depressed cost for maids, it allows lower income families to employ one as well.

You may not agree with me but there are people who got it real bad in their workplace and take it out on their maids when they return home.

More often than not, these maid employees belonged to the lower income bracket.

What about the cost in getting household help in Croatia? Is there a practice of live in maids over at your end?

lina said...

Likewise in Malaysia. The cheap maid allows almost every family to have a maid because it is cheaper to have a maid in the house rather than sending their kids to a nursery! We do have errant employers who mistreat their maids but at the same time, there are maids who abuse the charge they were suppose to take care of.
While the London counterparts are "specialist" in their line of work, the same can't be said to many of the maids hired in our region. Some may have no experience running a modern household and need to be trained by the employers themselves as trainings by the agents are inadequate hence I think, the lower salary received by them. Filipino maids OTH can command much higher salaries than Indonesian maids, as do Indian Maids.

C K said...

@Lina,
Agreed. In fact, many budding maids use M'sia and S'pore as stepping ground for employment in Middle Eastern countries.

Also, Filipino maids are higher paid mostly due to their better command of English. If I'm not wrong, they are entitled for weekend breaks as well.

Just wondering what's the cost of employment a live in help in M'sia.

EastCoastLife said...

I have been employing maids since my son was 10 months old. I have many horror stories to tell of my maids.

They lied, they cheated, they stole, they abused my young son. I treated them like my sisters and left them the house and my son, freedom to go out as and when needed. And yet they did not respect me nor reciprocate my kindness.

If I have a choice, I will not employ maids.

vhingF said...

we caregivers and some dometic helpers here are treated well.I could say that everywhere are having good or bad depending on how they respect themselves both employees and employers.

I have draft for this topic for next week.all the benifits we recieved.

thanks for this post, how nice you have in your mind.

keep up the good works .

Beamer said...

This is very Interesting. Being lower middle class in America, there is no way that we could afford a maid or a housekeeper. We have had 3 children and my wife and I worked out our day care issues mainly by getting some day care paid for, but at someone else's house or business. The thought of having anyone come into our house and take care of our children was never an option.

Beamer

SheR. said...

Hi CK.
No there's no practice for live-in domestic helpers in Croatia. It is reserved for the very rich. I guess the underground market of Bosnian ladies supply for this demand over here in most cases.

What I understand from my brother and cousin is.. most of the money they paid for hiring the maid goes to taxes (gahmen) and the maid agency. So we can't exactly blame the employer. The middlemen in SG takes the bigger slice of the cake, non?

Cashmere said...

It is true but actually it's really not that bad really.. If it's really bad, they wouldn't continue working her wouldn't they? Anyway, I don't think hiring a maid is that cheap now.. The price is followed by tasks/job requirement. They do have off days every week I think if I'm not wrong. And the obvious, they can't get pregnant. I think this is to prevent overpopulation and to control the Singaporean citizenship.

I think the difference is, correct me if I'm wrong, the maids in London/America is of higher education and of the same race/citizen unlike those in Singapore. For e.g, you'll hire a student/part-time worker to be your nanny, etc..

I'm not really sure of things and I'm sorry if I've made a mistake..

Martin in Bulgaria said...

In the UK employee's rights are far reaching no matter what Nationality they are, ther are laws that protect mistreating employees. I can't see why anyone would need a maid for housework unless they were either lazy, rich or both. Nannies for kids is a different story in this day and age with both parents working, but tbhen what happend to grandparents doing it for free, what a wasted resource!

lina said...

CK,
starting rate for a maid here in Malaysia is RM360.00. And yes Filipino maids do get weekends off, unlike their Indonesian counterparts.
Like ECL said, there are maids who cheat, steal and abuse their employers. There are too many horror stories about maids but most family had no choice but to get one, what with both parents working.
OTOH, we do not want cases like Normala Bonat to happen also. Maids are human too.

yanjie said...

if we pay peanuts, of course we will get more maids who are less professional, and hence "cheat, lie, etc. ". I may be wrong, but there are close-minded employers who still treat their maids as a lower form of beings.

In our Manpower policies, a construction worker can be considered as a semi-skilled labour, but our maids are considered as unskilled labour.

I wonder if we make the job of maids more professional, would they receive more pay, respect and benefits? Most importantly, will they be recognised as skilled labour under the eyes of the state, and hopefully, be able to receive more benefits?

I'm sadden that until today, we can't legislate laws that allow maids compulsory day off.

LadyBanana said...

Wish I could afford a maid! In my circle of friends and family it's never ever been heard of to have help like this, I guess it's only the rich who have them.. and not the everday working person like me..

webbielady said...

Indeed European house helps are treated better and salary wise, they have greater plus greater benefits. Mostly in Asia, house helps are not respected and I even heard many real stories of undue punishments, rape and other kinds of abuses. Usually maids in singapore are from other neighboring southeast asian countries... after all, singapore and malaysia are first world countries, much better than their fellow South east asian counterparts.

Dutchie said...

It seems that cross-culture domestic help doesnt work too well. I was remembering an aunty who literally brought the 7 of us up when my mom was working overseas. We were well fed, always dressed neatly n disciplined when needed. It now seemed like people in another time warp r different. Guess we were meek as lambs then n didnt give her much trouble.

Fast forward .. it's quite costly to employ a maid when u take into account the cost of food, lodgings, medic, phone cards (who those who can't write home), S$10 a day food allowance (for those indians or indo in a typical chinese family). Think also of the weekend outings - they lunch or dine with the family n the entries to some attractions r paid for too. The thing that always occur in my family r maids gaining weight from a better diet n yes, new clothes has to be bought for them too.

It's true that maids r not properly screened for their suitability for the job n lots of employers r frustrated with half a help. U would be mad too if ur household is not tidy n the kids r left unsupervised. My sis has has such experiences n she bit the bullet until the kids were 12 n sent the maid packing.

Often we get maids that were too young n u can guess their work ethics. My mom's latest maid is so fragile (indo), looking like 15yrs old n so it's the other way around - my mom is looking after the girl *sigh*. We cant sent her home until her 2yr contract is up.
She is a sweet girl, ever ready to help n she keeps my mom company, so we hv to count our blessings !

Sara said...

I think it cost around S$800 - S$1,000 per month including the maid's salary and levy. On top of that I think my family in Singapore pays a S$2,000 bond before the maid arrives.

Bayen said...

Singapore has had a bad history treating its maids, particularly Filipino maids. The case of Flor Contemplacion in the 1990's became a huge controversy which even almost made a rift between the Philippines and Singapore. Flor was a Filipino maid who was wrongfully accused of killing a fellow Filipino helper Delia Maga and a Singaporean child being taken cared of by Delia.

She was executed despite pleas from the Phil. Government to reconsider the case in the light of new evidence that the murder could have been done by the Singaporean employer of Delia himself.

There are many sad stories of Filipino workers being maltreated in countries like Singapore and I think it is really a cultural thing. Singaporeans think that maids are servants who deserve no benefit. It is a shame that despite this bad track record of Singapore, the Philippine governmetn has yet to place a ban on placement of OFW's in Singapore.

Having said that, I believe it is high time for an international organization such as the United Nations to formulate the Rights of Immigrant Workers and let all member-nations sign such a pact for the equal protection of all Immigrant workers worldwide.

iWalk said...

The cost of hiring a maid in China is low too. I know in most places maters and maids don't have employment relationship directly, They hire maids from maids companies.

But I never hear these maids companires will offer base insurance or other benefit to those maids.

shemistry said...

I came from Philippines many opt to go abroad because of their daily needs to satisfy themselves but sometimes the employers of this people are mean they sometimes don't give the salary in the scheduled date what would they feed for their family at home?..If those maids are cheaters liars you should employ maids that are from the agencies and ask their background before you employ them..sometimes lying,stealing and other bad things are the ways they do to compensate the bad things their employer did.

drcrab said...

In general, I think Singaporeans do mis-treat their maids, perhaps more so than in the UK/Europe. Then again, the number of domestic helpers that Singaporeans have is a much higher percentage than over here, so a critical mass will generate greater probabilities.

However, I cannot believe that in this day and age there are people who think that it's ok to mistreat a domestic helper because they are from a 'first-world' country, and justifying it because these domestic helpers are from a 'different race/culture'?! OMG. Unbelievable.

It's about time the Singapore government starts to view everyone under international human rights law.

C K said...

@ECL,
Sorry to hear about your experience. Although I've heard of similar incidents, I've also heard of maids who got along so well with their employors that the latter actually paid for the maids' wedding.

Luck of the draw, I guess.


@vhingF,
Thanks for stopping by. Do let me know when your post comes up this week. Cheers!

Deimos Tel`Arin said...

Heck, them maids are even much cheaper over here in Malaysia. :d

C K said...

@Beamer,
I'm not sure about the cost of employing a maid in the States but I would think that a live in help would be more expensive as compared to Singapore and Malaysia.

@SheR,
I thought so too but am not sure about the percentage that goes towards taxes. I think Sara wrote about that in her comment.

It's an irony isn't it? Most of my peers back home are employing maids, some even have two. I don't think you can consider them as filthy rich, if you know what I mean.


@Cashmere,
I'm not too sure about the race/education part. I am under the impression that there are quite a number of Filipinos maids over in London as well. Believe it or not, they are preferred to the locals as they are, well, more obliging.

As for the pregnancy issue, that's rather sensitive. Unlike other foreign workers/employees, the entry barrier for maids seems to be lower thus the restriction.

A nanny may be a totally differnt ballgame altogether. Some parents may want to someone with similar values (as them) to look after their children.


@Martin,
Some grandparents may not feel like looking after their grandchildren. After all, they have already done their bit looking after their children.

With regards to being lazy, I'm not too sure about that. It's a rat race back home. Most families have parents working full time. So some are, in a way, 'forced' to get a maid to look after their kids when they are out.

It's really circumstancial. I mean, it's like saying those living on benefits are lazy. That cannot be the case for all, I guess.


@lina,
Hang on a sec, who's Normala Bonat? Was she subjected to abuses by her employer?

Of late, there are some Myanmese coming into S'pore to work as maids as well. Are they in M'sia?


@yanjie,
Agreed. At the end of the day, people do tend to behave the way you treat them. I'm sure you're accustomed to the sights of maids eating in a seperate table in hawker centres, more often than not with their employers' children in tow.

I am not aware the reason behind the lack of legislative laws on days' off. Are you?


@LadyBanana,
Well, would you need one in the first place? Some employ one as an easy way out. It might be more of a hassle to manage without one but you'll be amaze at how much you can juggle if there's a need to. :)


@webbielady,
There's was this big hoohaa about first world countries some time back. Apparently, Singapore is elevated above a developing nation's status but not yet a first world country. :)

Sometimes, I am just a bit bemused as to how one tend to display a sense of superiority when there's absolutely no basis for it.


@Dutchie,
I know what you mean about 'young' maids. There should really be an age limit. Then again, most would lie about their age anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if the maid agencies are behind it.

That said, your sis' maid must have some redeeming points to be retained for twelve long years. :)


@Sara,
Hey, thanks for providing the figures. I was under the impression that most goes to the Govt just not exactly how much. Seems that the Govt is taking in more than the maids themselves.

An irony when you look at it. Both parents working will pay more taxes. If they employ a maid, they'll pay even more taxes. Hmm... am I missing something here?


@Bayen,
Thanks for stopping by.

I have heard about Flor's case. I remember reading about it when I was still in school. Although I'm not too sure about the details of the incident so I shan't comment on that.

However, I agree with you that those abusers of maids should be dealt with more hashly.


@iWalk,
Most maids in Singapore (and Malaysia) are hired through agencies, who claim that they are 'specially selected'. More often than not, they, being the middlemen, is the only party to benefit from such arrangement.


@shemistry,
Would you agree that if the maids are paid more, they would behave more professionally?

I think it could be attributed to the background as the maids as well. Some came over to work as maids despite having tertiary education back home. It's not surprising that some maids are better educated than their employers.

I agree that the background checks are really important. Get a good maid agency, don't stinge on the fees.


@drcrab,
Well said. Once again, there's the irony. By insisting that maids be treated (and paid) fairly would drive up the cost of employing them. That would led to less maids being employed (less taxes), which would lead to less workers in the workforce as some may have to stay at home (thus leading to less taxes).

See the pattern here?


@Deimos,
Hang on a sec, is this the first time you ever (ever) leave a comment over here? lol

I would imagine so. Lina (from KL) was saying that it's around RM 360. But that would exclude taxes, wouldn't it?

drcrab said...

as a new mum in the UK, let me give you some figures as to how much nursery costs around here. We put 'his lordship' in nursery 3.5 days a week. That costs nearly £600 a month. On days that he doesn't go because he's sick, we don't get the money back. Same if we go on holiday. Those who put the child in full-time pay about £800-900 a month. That works out to nearly the full pay of an average UK employee (after taxes).

Hence why most people cannot afford full-time childcare and turn to a mix of nursery and grandparents/relatives. My secretaries all work part-time, and still their children go to grandparents 1x a week to save on costs (and to bond with the grandparents).

If one hired a nanny, my mummy friends and I have figured that it works out cheaper if the nanny took care of 2 children or more (ie, if you have 2 children otherwise, it's cheaper at daycare). That person would cost roughly £1000-1500/month minimum, and that person would be solely incharge of the child/children. So, when I'm at music class with my son, I see other nannies there with their charges. They are solely in charge of the child/children (so feeding them, changing them, playing with them).

Nannies do not do any other work for the family (like take dry cleaning to the cleaners, do the weekly shop, clean, wash, cook...).


My friend in Canada however has a live-in nanny/maid and there's plenty of them about as Canada has an immigration policy that somehow allows foreign workers (from asia mostly) to work there as domestics/nannies for a few years afterwhich they can apply for permanent residency. That's attractive in many ways, and so my friend relies on a nanny/maid for her 2 children and this woman cleans and cooks for her family too.

frankly, if you want live-in help (nanny, maid, call them whatever you wish), then really you need to treat them the way you'd like to be treated. So, if you go out for a family meal and you wish them to come along to help you with your kids/elderly parents, then really it's only fair you feed them too! Ditto for if you want to take your kids to the zoo and you want your nanny there. It's a lifestyle choice. You can always just take the family to the zoo/restaurant and leave the maid at home - then you needn't pay 'extra' for her!

just my 2p (or more!) worth...

Anonymous said...

Some very interesting comments. I am not in Singapore, however I have read about some very bad stories about maids and employers in Asian countries. I have worked as a maid for about 7 years in commercial and domestic situations. I do think some maids in Asian and especially middle eastern countries get treated badly, but sometimes even western maids come across the "you're just the maid" mentallity. I have recently read a book about domestic servants in Victorian England, and was supprised to find myself relating to the maids in the book as I had encountered some of the "demands" made on them. Having a stranger live in your home, and, as a maid living in someone elses home can present some "moments". I like to draw a strict line. I am employed as your maid, I am not one of the family, I do not want to be one of the family, you are my employer. I have known of maids that are sort of invited to be "part of the family" and it nearly always ends with one party being very discontented. The old addage "familarity breeds contempt" is never more noticeable than between employer and employee.
Blessings,
Kim.

C K said...

@drcrab,
Thanks for that information!

Does the cost of "£1000-1500/month" include taxes?

I know of someone who sent her kids to daycare and like what you mentioned, she has to pay even when her kids couldn't make it on a particular day for one reason or another. There was once, her kids were turned away as they weredown with flu - the daycare didn't want the virus to spread to other kids. She ended up having to take the day off to look after them at home AND pay for the daycare for that day.

One thing that I've noticed, the grandparents over in London, or at least that's what's happening to those whom I know, are not very active in the caring of their grandkids. Much less than back in Singapore. Is that the norm here?


@Kim,
Really? That's interesting. I mean, there are some employers who go all out to make the maid feel like one of the family and it seems that there are some maids who prefers to keep it as professional as possible.

That makes sense but only when the maid's own family is not too far away, isn't it? Otherwise, wouldn't it be real lonely... in a sense?

Anonymous said...

Your blog mention that the maid in singapore is paid around $400 which is 10% of London's. Try offering 4k for a maid(or babysitter, caretaker or anyname u want), no need to get from Indo or Philippine. Sure many Singaporean will want. Questions are: Is that kind of pay justified? If not, why ? Because the employer also doesnt earn that much! So..., pls do not compare one country from another where the culture and background is so different?!!

If u compare the Filippino maid who works in Philippine and their wages is even worse than what they get in Spore, is about 30 to 40 us!

C K said...

@Anon,
Granted that I should probably not compare the salary of maids in S'pore and London. Then again, I've not lived in the Philipines so I wouldn't know how their maids are being treated.

I've noticed that the less you spend on something (or someone), the worse you tend to treat them. There's a reason why the maids back in S'pore are paid a depressed wage... let's not get into the details here but S'pore's GDP growth for the past decade doesn't come free. It's a zero sum game really.

Thanks for dropping by and hope to see you again. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Lots of people have different oppinions of this, in the UK we generally believe that everyone deserves the same rights, what is being missed here is that everyone in Singapore has similar rights, if you loose your job there is no fall back on the health service or unemployment benefits. In the UK we are very lucky to live in a very protected safe environment if you have an illness you get treatment, at no cost, if you lose your job you get unemployment benefit, maybe it's not how you are used to living but you and your children wont starve. Most Asian countries have no such protection for their citizens and it makes for a more competative environment with a harder edge.(Not necessarily a negative point some in the UK choose to massively mistreat their safety net) I don't believe that anyone should be mistreated in the work place and in an ideal situation freedom to move between employers would prevent this. However don't think that life in the UK is necessarily easy, people are having children later partly because of the costs involved, as a result grandparents are simply too elderly/unwell themselves to help out. Hiring help is impossible for most people and when one person in a marriage has to give up work to raise the children they often feel less important/unforfilled and this can hugely strain the marriage. I'm not sure if there is an ideal solution.