Covid-19 restrictions add to frustration for both migrant domestic workers and employers
The tightened Covid-19 border controls have left the migrant domestic worker (MDW) market strained, as fewer helpers have been allowed into Singapore since the pandemic.
This has led to the popularity of transfers among MDWs currently working here, but the process has not been smooth.
According to non-governmental organisations and employment agencies, MDWs have to obtain their current employers’ permission before they may transfer to a new employer, and many have been denied transfers amid the pandemic as employers claim it would be hard to find a new helper.
However, employers are feeling the frustration too.
Some have even encountered cases where they believe MDWs are using the shortage of manpower as leverage to negotiate for higher pay and better benefits, or try to gain the upper hand in demanding a transfer.
A 49-year-old civil servant, who only wanted to be known as Mrs Lee, told The New Paper that she spent over $6,000 to bring in a new MDW from Indonesia, yet the latter only worked for her family from early January to mid-March.
Mrs Lee was shocked when her MDW demanded for a transfer for no reason, leaving her and her husband, who both work full-time, swamped with their jobs and three young children.
Mrs Lee said: “We gave her reasonable pay, manageable work and treated her well. I don’t know why she wanted to transfer.”
Unable to persuade her helper to stay and unwilling to repatriate her and absorb the loan, which was about $3,600, Mrs Lee had no choice but to agree to her request.
She is currently waiting for another Indonesian MDW, whose entry date has already been deferred twice due to border restrictions, and will need to pay $1,800 for the stay-home notice.
Ms Lynn Koi, executive director of the Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE), told TNP that it has received over 140 queries from MDWs on its helpline seeking advice on the transfer of employment between January and June this year, which was significantly more than the calls it received on this issue in the past two years.
In response to TNP’s queries, a spokesman for the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said there has been no notable increase in the average number of transfers of MDWs to another employer during the period of April 2020 to June this year, as compared to 2019.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) said MDWs should have the right to switch employers freely, with clearly defined notice periods that both employers and employees are to abide by.
Its spokesman said: “(We received) increased calls for assistance from MDWs who wish to transfer employers upon the completion of their contracts, but are unable to do so as their employers are unable to find replacement MDWs. They are thus forced to extend their work permits, or renew their work permits, as some are threatened with repatriation if they do not do so.
“Currently, MDWs are reliant on their employers’ consent in order to switch employers. Meanwhile, employers are able to unilaterally dismiss and repatriate an MDW without giving any prior notice. ”
Higher salaries have also been observed since fewer MDWs can enter Singapore due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
According to MOM, the average monthly salary has gone up by 8 per cent, or about $40, over the past 12 months. Between 2016 to 2020, the year-on-year increase in average monthly salaries was about 3 per cent.
Mr Michael Khan, who manages maid agency Workforce Manpower, said salaries are “hitting the roof” and he has not seen such raises in his 30 years of being in the business.
He said: “Now that incoming maids are restricted, the transfer maids have wisened up to the fact that employers have to hire from the local pool, and they started asking for ridiculous salaries and perks, like more rest days, permission to use their mobile phones all day and refusal to look after young children and/or immobile elderly.”
Ms Lynn Ng, manager of maid agency Achieve Employment, told TNP that transfer MDW salaries now range from between $700 to $1,000 monthly, compared to between $520 and $700 for new MDWs.
Ms Ng said: “I believe that helpers are beginning to question their worth, like are they paid fairly and are they getting job satisfaction with their current employer.”
She added: “Employers can consider to be flexible in terms of their employment criteria, and offer some employment benefits, like more rest and better living arrangements, to have a win-win situation in retaining their helper.”
However, Ms Flora Sha, who manages maid agency United Channel, cautioned maids against transferring frequently for higher pay.
She said: “I understand they have friends who have higher salaries, or they have seen cases online where others received higher salaries from transferring, but they need to think wisely - are they able to meet the expectations?”
According to MOM, employers are encouraged to check the employment history of an MDW, including the period of each employment contract, prior to hiring, which would discourage MDWs from changing employers frivolously.
Ms Koi said CDE recommends MDWs who wish to earn a higher pay to adopt a keen learning attitude and enhance their skills where possible.
She added that both parties should be open during the job interview and discuss the job scope and requirements, so that the MDW can also make an informed decision on whether to accept the job offer, which would minimise misunderstandings later in the employment relationship.