Why maids have become indispensable in Singapore

Newly arrived domestic helpers from Indonesia wait for their transportation. (AFP photo)
Newly arrived domestic helpers from Indonesia wait for their transportation. (AFP photo)

In the column "The FlipSide", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society in his weekly musings. To be taken with a pinch of salt and with parental permission advised. In this post, he reflects on the work situation of maids and their Singaporean employers.

Here's a fact for local maid employers to chew on: Hong Kong is a far more attractive place for maids to work compared to Singapore.

Over there, maids can be guaranteed a minimum wage of S$630 a month by law.

They don't work on public holidays and get one mandatory day off a week.

And here's the kicker: In stark contrast, maids in Singapore are paid an average monthly wage of S$380.

And we're still in the midst of arguing if they should get one day's break a week, public holidays be damned.

Put yourself in your maid's shoes, touch your heart and pray tell: given the choice, which destination would you choose to go to be gainfully employed?

Benefits of extra days off

Therefore, in the larger scheme of things, providing more rest days will be a good thing, as it makes Singapore more attractive a place to work.

Maids, especially those with experience and who are of a higher calibre with more bargaining power, will then consider coming here instead of vying to enter other markets such as Hong Kong.

The reality is that if Singapore doesn't improve conditions, she would really have herself to blame. The remaining pool of foreign domestic workers who end up here might not be up to standard, as the better ones have naturally fled to greener pastures.

Needless to say, I'd argue vehemently that off days are welcome and people ought to look at the bigger picture. It is for the overall good.

But that's not the point of today's missive.

The point is that Singapore might have entered a phase where we are no longer able to depend on Singaporeans or even maids to uphold the long standing institution of starting and sustaining a family.

Crux of the maid issue

Because really, the plight of maids stems from the plight of Singaporeans. This is the crux of the issue now.

If we think that maids work long hours, that's only because Singaporeans are putting in just as many at the expense of their families.

Therefore, the debate surrounding maids' much-deserved mandatory day off ought to be viewed as just a symptom of a much larger problem plaguing our country.

Let's look at the figures and work out what's ailing our locals.

Under the present Employment Act, the math dictates that maids are remunerated S$15 for each day of work, assuming their monthly income is a generous S$400.

And this is the part that often boggles my mind.

I tried but I can never fathom getting paid S$15 for working 16 hours a day!

Plight of Singaporeans

However, one definite reason why Singaporeans can't afford to pay maids a higher salary is because we are generally not making big bucks.

Plus, we are bled dry as we keep getting ERP-ed here, CPF-ed there and GST-ed everywhere.

And just like maids, the problem with Singaporeans is that we don't suffer from absenteeism.

Rather, we're inflicted with what is known as "presenteeism."

This is the condition where we spend too much time at work, allowing us to have the dubious honour of being workers who put in one of the longest hours in the world.

The sad and brutal fact is that Singaporeans are working very hard and very long to the extent that getting married, settling down, having kids and building a family is being passed over.

I dare you, look at the dwindling birth rate and prove me wrong.

Singaporeans at wits' end?

And it's not as if Singaporeans are unreasonable, selfish or heartless when it comes to these debates about whether maids deserve to be treated better.

It's just that things are turning out the way they are because Singaporeans are truly in a bind themselves and transferring the burden to their maids.

Moreover, I've heard the other side of the argument too. Employers do face tremendous and horrendous difficulty getting some maids to even perform simple tasks.

Not only will these employers be unable to get their house in order, they are left with a maid that probably wasn't even qualified and experienced enough to work in Hong Kong in the first place.

In plain English, Singaporeans are more or less at wits' end.

Which is why, if employers are willing to entrust their entire household, children, the elderly and all of its contents, to a maid who is a complete stranger -- and who might have hidden the fact that she is underage and who came from a rural impoverished village for a paltry $15 a day, things in Singapore have truly come to a head.

And think about our population problem this way too: why should Singaporeans settle down, have kids and become parents only to have some foreign stranger look after them and watch them grow up?

Is this situation grotesque or what?

I'm pretty sure you already know the answer so let the comments roll.

Belmont Lay is one of the editors for New Nation, an online publication about Singapore that is not fashionable enough. Yet.