Hiring a maid in Singapore-Expat to Expat advice

It was an easy decision for Ravi and I to make to hire a helper here in Singapore.  Our family is 10k miles away and if the lack of a support network wasn’t enough, the double ear infection I came down with (impairing me to the point where I couldn’t care for E for several days) when we got back to the US after our “Look-See” visit would have convinced me.  I’ve never regretted the decision to hire B–between food poisoning that lasted two-three weeks, a broken ankle that put me in a wheelchair for two months and crippling pregnancy-related nausea that has trapped me in bathrooms for hours on end, I honestly don’t know how I’d survive Singapore with my sanity intact.

I do have regrets, though.

I regret that although we were told to make sure our agency was accredited by MOM, but that we didn’t know to look for an agency that was also accredited by the Philippine Embassy.

Using a non-accredited agency makes things like passport renewal and home leave really difficult, requiring involvement of a third party before your helper has been with you for two years (at which point the maid/you can do the paperwork on your own).  As we recently learned, this creates major issues in the chain of communication.  Your agency will also sound like they know what the process is (we were confidently told 6 weeks) and may not be up to date (in truth, it’s currently 8 weeks, and there have been delays in passport distribution–in B’s case, close to 10 weeks for a renewal).  Our agency even went so far as to refuse to disclose the name/contact info of the third party agency which meant that I could not directly speak to people involved in B’s actual passport renewal.

We decided on our agency because I met another expat who’d used them, and she liked her helper.  They were accredited by MOM, which was all I knew to check for.  I was too naive to know more about the process.

I regret that no one was honest with me about the recommendations of the Embassy regarding Fillipina maid’s pay.

The Philippine Embassy requires a minimum salary of 600 SGD per month and 4 days off per month to give a maid permission to work in Singapore.  However, Singapore does not have such requirements.  What many/most agencies do is file two sets of paperwork; one with the Embassy, stating the 600SGD/4days off per month and one with MOM/the employer stating the actual “agreed upon” salary/days off.  The maids know about this, but have been warned against speaking out.

When we hired B, we knew that her Singaporean family had paid her 380 SGD a month (which is a fairly standard SG paycheck for a domestic helper) and given her one day off per month (which is again, fairly standard).  She had agreed, in principle, to work for a different family at 400 SGD a month, but had not started when we first arrived in Singapore.  She worked for us part time for a few days while I apartment hunted and helped me learn to navigate Singapore, and I offered the agency/B 500 SGD a month/1 day off a week as an incentive to allow her to switch employers, as she had not actually started working for the other family yet.  We though we were being generous.

When we began the passport renewal process, I was asked to sign a piece of paperwork that stated her monthly salary was 600SGD.  Certain it was a typo, I contacted the agency and asked them to correct it.  I was told to “just sign it.”  Ravi and I began to google, and we learned about the Embassy’s rules.  Upon questioning, B admitted she knew about the dual paperwork.

I felt horrible.

We have since raised her salary and made restitution…and now feel that we are truly doing the “right thing.”

Many locals argue that since you pay a monthly levy, giving a maid 380 is like paying them 500+ and that the levy (taxes) is just being taken out of the maid’s salary.  However, never having been told that, we were never given the chance to make the call for ourselves.  I honestly still feel horrible about it.

I regret that no one has really clarified what the role of the agency actually is.

It was my understanding that the agency’s job was

  • To protect the interests of the maid–to make sure they were safe and happy, and to help them if they were not
  • To provide basic maid training and other training–B did have to attend a course with MOM, that told her some of her rights, but at no time did the agency do anything to make sure she knew her rights (that she is only supposed to live/work at the address on her work permit, that she’s supposed to have a rest period every day, things like that).
  • To protect the interests of the employer–to provide mediation in a case of dissatisfaction, and to listen to the employer’s stated needs to help find the best employer/employee match
  • To handle the paperwork that comes up during the 2 year period (with the understanding that things like passport renewal will cost an additional fee) including home leave requests, MOM paperwork, insurance, and security bond

In theory this may actually be the truth of what they are “supposed” to do.

However, over time I really have become jaded.  It is not actually in the agency’s best interest to do this.  MOM allows a maximum of 5 or 6 maids in a year before the employer is required to go through “additional” training (the initial training is a joke–you would have to make a concerted effort to fail it, and consists of things like “don’t let your maid hang out of windows because they’ll fall to their deaths”).  With that in mind, you have to think about how the agency actually makes money

Agencies make money the following ways

  • They earn approximately 6+ months of the maid’s salary to “pay them back” for airfare and training
  • They earn a month’s salary (or more) for a “transfer” from one employer to another
  • They earn money from employers each time they engage a maid

It isn’t actually in their best interest for your first maid to work out.  In our case, the agency was pushing…PUSHING HARD…a maid that, after speaking with her, I just sort of knew wouldn’t be a good fit with our family (very traditional, much older than Ravi and I, and just some intangible “vibes”).  If I hadn’t stood my ground about interviewing people in person and on the phone, I can virtually guarantee that we would have needed to transfer her, which would have been at expense to both of us (and to the benefit of the agency).

I’ve also seen a lot of discussion on various boards of situations where maids were (in theory) abusive towards a child (although one has to take that with a grain of salt…in some families, telling the child not to hit you is “abuse”) and the agency told the family not to send the maid home, but to allow her to transfer….because she still owed THEM money and they wouldn’t necessarily be able to recoup their losses if she left Singapore.  I have no doubts that there are bad maids out there (my in-laws could both share stories about maids who stole, who were dishonest, who were negative experiences in India).  But the system of financial profit for the agencies doesn’t encourage them to ensure that good workers stay and employees with bad records do not–a “bad” employee may, in the long run, make more money for them.  A good employee, after all, if they stay with a family long term, doesn’t need the services of an agency after two years–they or they and their employer can do all the paperwork without a third party.

What then, can you do as an employer to stay on the side of what we, as Americans (and other Westerners) would consider “ethical” when it comes to the initial practicalities of hiring a helper?

  • Confirm that your agency is not only accredited by MOM (go here) but by the Philippines Embassy if you are hiring a Filipina (go here for the excel sheet)
  • KNOW that if you hire a Filipina, the Embassy will be told that they are making 600 SGD a month with 4 days off per month.
  • Decide for yourselves if you want to take the levy out of their salary or pay it on your own (it’s my opinion that it’s cheap of you to require them to pay it, as it’s pretty much a 50% tax, and even at the highest income bracket in SG, you’ll never pay more than 20%…but that’s your call).
  • Decide how you want to go about hiring your helper and be certain of your choice before you commit–knowing it’s not the agency’s interest to ensure a good fit.
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10 Responses to Hiring a maid in Singapore-Expat to Expat advice

  1. bookjunkie says:

    Wow…I seriously had no idea this dual application thing was done. Just seems wrong. It’s good that you’re raising awareness about this.

    • Crystal says:

      I’m really frustrated with the system as a whole.

      It sucks that for these women, making 380 SGD a month is far more than they could make back home, and that they often make these sacrifices to give their children a better life. It’s a harsh wake up call that puts my “problems” into perspective. I wish that there were more regulations in place, and that employer training would reflect the reality that it’s very tough to have someone in your home and to manage them. I wish that there were more respect given.

      I just want to be a voice who speaks out and says “hey, this is going on…please be mindful to make the choices you can live with at night.”

  2. Katie says:

    This is food for thought for new expats, useful information.
    Katie, Expat Living

  3. Dee says:

    This is such a useful post – I’m moving to SG in Jan ( 7 months pregnant with my first baby by then). We would like a helper but really want to do the right thing and treat them as fairly as we would anybody who works on our teams in the office. I was already surprised by the helper accomodation in the condos I visited but after 25 apartments I realised it was pretty standard.

    Your blog is so honest and refreshing – it’s answered so many of the questions I have about life in SG, especially about having a baby there. Thanks for sharing.


    • Crystal says:

      Best of luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, and if you want an OB/GYN recommendation, I can’t say enough nice things about mine (based out of Gleneagles).

  4. Kerry says:

    Just stumbled across this post after doing a search on hiring a helper in Singapore… We’re in the midst of this right now and I’ve done a LOT of research, and, wow, I’ve never seen anything at all on this till now. Very interesting and informative, thanks so much for sharing! I’m now going to check if the agencies we’re talking to are in fact certified by the Phil embassy.
    Thanks from a fellow expat Bostonian!

    • Crystal says:

      Let me know when you’re in town. There’s another expat Bostonian (by way of Australia), Kate, who blogs at http://katemate.wordpress.com/ …maybe we can all get together and stream the first sox game of the season in march/april 🙂

      Best of luck…having a helper can really make your experience in Singapore so positive. B has become a member of our family and I’m so grateful for all the support she provides.

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  6. Neil Cornwall says:

    Having had a number of maids and lived here for six years on and off, I have learnt a few lessons the hard way. 1/ Be firm (but fair) from day one – maids can be ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’ and softness equals weakness to many of them. 2/ Be ultra selective at selection stage (there are plenty out there, so be choosy) 3/ Many of them have problems with telling the truth, come down hard on this, especially if they are looking after your kids 4/ Finally, make sure they know you are the boss (the Pinoy Princess phenomenon is common in well meaning western households).

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