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Where have Singapore's Indonesian maids gone?

Straits Times - March 27, 2011

Radha Basu It makes for an unlikely dream factory. At a whitewashed house on the outskirts of Jakarta, 120 Indonesian women are striving to fulfill a cherished migrant ambition.

They are training to be maids and to look after other people's homes in affluent parts of the region. It is often their only ticket out of penury.

Singapore has long been a coveted destination. But its allure is fading fast. Ask how many want to work in Taiwan and 66 hands promptly shoot skywards. Another 39 favor Hong Kong, but only 15 cite Singapore as their dream destination.

Why is that, you ask. Singapore is safe, clean and so close to home. Why do they not want to work there? "Money not enough, Ma'am," the women intone in unison. "Taiwan, Hong Kong got higher salary."

The labor squeeze that has long been a by-product of globalization and booming Asian economies seems to have reached the lower strata of the job market. Women, even from desperately poor backgrounds, can afford to be a bit choosier these days, as maid recruiters in Indonesia are finding out.

This group of women is being trained by Sejahtera Eka Pratama (SEP), an employment agency in Bekasi, near Jakarta.

A similar story is playing out in Pangkalan, a sleepy West Java hamlet about 250km away. Of the 5,000 families living there, at least 4,000 have a son or a daughter working in a low-paying job overseas. The hamlet's dirt roads are accessible only via motorbike.

Sukarma Mahmud, 50, a village recruiter who supplies Indonesian employment agencies with women willing to work as domestic labor overseas, is doing his rounds.

He is making his pitch to Kesih Suta, 23, as she sits on a mat in her parents' two-room home. She returned to her village last December after seven years away working as a maid in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

"You will earn more than you did for sure," he promises the petite woman whose last pay was around $320 per month. "You may even get four days off a month."

But Kesih, the eldest child of an odd-job worker and a farmer, looks unconvinced. "I can earn even more in Taiwan,' she says in Bahasa.

Sukarma changes tack. "You help me and I help you," he cajoles. "You pay me something then?" she counters, as her two younger siblings both under 10 play nearby. "My parents could use the money.

Would 2 million rupiah (S$290) be enough, he asks. 'I'll think about it,' she smiles. 'No promises.'

Low pay, high qualifications

Indonesia is Singapore's biggest supplier of foreign domestic workers, with at least 90,000 of its citizens working in the Republic.

But a number of factors are taking the gloss off Singapore as a destination, as The Straits Times discovered during a recent visit to training centers and kampungs near Jakarta.

Interviews with 10 Jakarta-based employment agencies and dozens of women who have worked or plan to work as maids overseas found that low pay, high eligibility criteria and the surge in demand from Taiwan, where the women can earn twice what they can here, are undermining Singapore's appeal.

The relatively low wages that Singaporean employers pay for domestic help compared with rates in Hong Kong or Taiwan are by far the biggest disincentive.

An Indonesian maid with no experience who comes to Singapore gets around S$380 a month, though some recruiters are trying to increase that to S$450, with at least one day off.

With wage levels left strictly to market forces and individual employers and maids to determine, some earn even less. Some agencies in Indonesia still recruit maids for S$350 a month or less. Some of these operators are unlicensed.

In Hong Kong, where minimum wage laws are in place, a maid earns at least HK$3,580 (S$581), with at least one day off a week. Unlike in Singapore, domestic workers there are also covered by employment laws and entitled to all public holidays off plus paid annual leave.

Maids in Taiwan can command at least NT$15,840 ($678), with four days off a month. They are also paid extra for working on days off.

Malaysia used to be at the bottom of the table when it came to paying Indonesian maids, but the Jakarta government banned its maids from working there last year after a rise in alleged cases of abuse.

Maids in the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the Middle East still receive S$350, or less, but the employers absorb all recruitment costs, unlike in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Also, typically, better-off Middle Eastern households employ a few maids each, so the individual workload is lighter.

While Singapore employers generally pay less than those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the eligibility criteria are the highest.

A worker has to be at least 23 years old and have at least eight years' education to come here. Taiwan and Hong Kong only require domestic workers to be 21 or over. There are no official education criteria, though maids generally have at least primary-level education.

Nurfaizi Suwandi, chairman of Apjati, the Indonesian Manpower Services Association, says: "Twenty-three-year-olds might find it hard to want to work in Singapore for S$380 or S$400, when 21-year-olds are getting close to S$700 in Taiwan."

The body has 330 members, making it Indonesia's largest association for employment agencies. "The 19- and 20-year-olds who want to come and work in Singapore don't stand a chance."

A few years ago, domestic workers fresh from their villages initially went to Malaysia or Singapore to gain experience, before moving on to higher-paid jobs elsewhere. As Singapore provided an important training ground, it seemed fair that maids were paid less, say agents.

For instance, when Titin Kartini, 26, the eldest of three children of penniless West Java farmers, decided to work overseas a decade ago, she chose Singapore. She earned S$230 a month and worked for a family with three young children.

She had no days off and was not allowed to go out on her own, but she did not mind. "I just focused on learning how to cook and clean, and I also picked up Mandarin," she says. "All I wanted was to move to Hong Kong." She did so in 2004, and worked there until 2008 for around S$600 a month.

Titin has spent the past three years teaching English at a village school, but is now keen to be off again, this time to Taiwan. "I have always had good employers, but I really want to earn more," says the articulate and confident woman, who can cook for up to 30 people at a time.

Taiwan is attractive not just for the $700 salary. Unlike in Hong Kong, where she says she was forced to take four days off a month by law and in doing so spending precious money she says Taiwan allows her to work on her days off. By working three Sundays a month, she can earn an additional $70, she calculates.

Opportunities elsewhere

But experienced workers like Titin are not the only ones flocking to Taiwan and Hong Kong these days, says Charles Butar Butar, who heads SEP. Increasingly, even Indonesians with limited or no experience also prefer to start out there.

His agency now supplies around 120 maids to Taiwan and 100 to Hong Kong every month, up from around 80 and 50, respectively, five years ago. There has been a corresponding decrease in supply to Singapore, with only 20 or so of his maids headed here, down from 100 five years ago.

Said Butar Butar: "The Indonesians are increasingly seen to be more obedient and willing to fit into the Chinese culture. And Taiwan and Hong Kong employers don't mind if they have little or no experience."

The Singapore market is getting hit by another factor as well a depleting supply of Filipino domestic workers, who have long been the Indonesians' rivals in the region.

"For some reason, Filipinas are not coming in the numbers they used to be," says the agency boss. "Indonesians are taking their place."

Filipino maids are increasingly turning down Singapore jobs unless they are paid a Philippine government-stipulated minimum salary of US$400 ($506). This has led to a surge in demand for Indonesians here.

The Philippine Embassy in Singapore confirms that the supply of Filipina domestic workers in the region has been falling in recent years.

More of them prefer to work as retail assistants and factory workers, or go further afield for higher-paying jobs as domestic workers in Canada, Spain and Italy or factory workers in Taiwan, its labor attache Rodolfo Sabulao told The Straits Times.

Indonesians, too, are navigating hitherto unexplored fields, points out Nurfaizi. They are finding jobs on cruise ships in the United States and Europe, and through a government-to-government program as health-care workers in Japan.

Even bribes do not work

In a region flush with opportunity, it is small wonder then that many young women in Indonesian villages are reluctant to come to Singapore.

After failing to convince Kesih, Sukarma, the village recruiter, drops in on Zubaidah Nono Suoyana, 27, a former factory worker now planning to work overseas as a maid.

Zubaidah has two young children, including a month-old son, and her husband's pay as an odd-job laborer is not enough for the family. She says she heard on the radio that girls willing to go to Singapore stand to gain an advance payment of 4 million rupiah.

As she has no experience as a maid a stint in Saudi Arabia was aborted last year when her employer sent her home within a month Zubaidah initially agrees to work for anything above $350 a month.

But the moment she learns that she might have to live on only $20 a month or possibly even $10 for up to nine months while she pays off the recruitment costs, she lets out a small shriek. "I won't even be able to breathe on that money. No way I could survive."

She says her Saudi employer's wife sent her back because she believed her husband was paying her too much attention. "In Saudi Arabia, there were no deductions," she says. "How do maids survive in Singapore for so long with so little money?"

As he leaves her home, Sukarma claims that he increasingly has to pay maids and their families up to 5 million rupiah to coax them to even consider Singapore.

Recruiters emphasize that the supply of maids from Indonesia has not dried up. But there is a definite crunch in the supply of quality maids.

Says recruitment agent Rudy Hart: "There will always be some who want to go, but their quality is in question." He knows of women who take the "ang pow" money and come to Singapore, only to find that the work is too hard for them. "They then run away and return home," he says. "The agents try to chase them for refunds, but often they don't get any."

Dreaded English test

Singapore's supply is further depleted by the exacting entrance requirements, say Indonesian agents. In April 2005, Singapore introduced a compulsory test in English for all maids that radically changed the game, says Butar Butar.

With better-educated women generally gunning for higher-paying jobs in Hong Kong and Taiwan or other professions elsewhere and Malaysia out of bounds due to the Indonesian government ban Singapore is increasingly becoming the place for those who cannot really go anywhere else.

Even if they have completed the mandatory eight years of schooling that Singapore requires, they hardly know any English, points out Antony Rais, who teaches English at Sumber Kencana Sejahtera, a large employment agency on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Although statistics from Singapore's Ministry of Manpower show that nearly 95 per cent of all domestic workers pass the test, Indonesian agents say the number for Indonesians is lower.

Says Mr Hart: "The 95 per cent includes Filipinos, who probably find the test easy." In his agency, which supplies around 50 girls to Singapore every month, about a third fail the test.

In Butar Butar's agency, the pass rate sometimes falls even lower. "Just last week, I sent nine girls to Singapore and six returned after failing the test," he says.

One sultry afternoon earlier this month, Antony coached a class of 40. The women prepare for the class by memorizing the answers to 400 questions similar to those found in the Singapore test, with a Bahasa-English dictionary at their side.

The questions are framed in such a way that the women learn not only the basics of English, but also information directly relevant to their work as domestic workers. They also learn about their rights.

"Where in Singapore can you work?" asks Mr Antony, first in English and then in Bahasa. "Only in my employer's house," choruses the class, picking the correct answer from the list of four options.

Later, they learn what a "three-in-one" coffee mix is, how Indonesian helpers should be given at least one day off a month when they work in Singapore and how they can call their agent, embassy or a hotline run by the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) if they are not paid.

But learning by rote in a group setting is not always effective. As the class progresses, some play with their pencils or stare at the corridor outside, lost in thought.

Tough employers

While novices are eager to work in Singapore, some returnees are reluctant to go back. Many narrate stories of how Singaporeans can be tough employers, unlike those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many rue what they call their lack of freedom.

From June 2009, when Siti Nurjanah Surjono left Jakarta to go to Singapore to work, till October last year, her parents did not hear from her even once. Then, on Hari Raya last year, she called her mother. "It was like she came back from the dead," recounts her mother, Julekha Sutana, 45.

Nurjanah, 24, claims that from the time she began working for a family of five adults in Jurong, she was not allowed to leave her employer's home on her own, or even to make a phone call. Her primary duty was to look after the ailing matriarch of the family. She also claims that both she and the elderly woman were not given enough to eat.

Shortly after her first phone call home 16 months later the elderly woman died. Nurjanah was returned to the agency and asked to be sent back home.

Meanwhile, her sister Marfuah Surjono, 27, spent eight years working for two families in Hong Kong without incident. She was given enough food, had regular days off and the keys to the house. "My employers even took me to Ocean Park," she beams, referring to a theme park.

Marfuah, who now works as a Cantonese teacher to trainee maids, says she frequently shares her story and that of her sister's with prospective maids: "They need to be informed about the risks before they can make choices."

But Singapore still retains its attraction for one group of women who would work here again in a heartbeat maids who have had fair employers and enjoyed their stints in the Lion City.

Siti Sopiah, 28, a farmer's wife with a one-year-old son worked for the same Bukit Timah family a married couple, their son and the child's elderly grandmother for seven years.

She said her employers were concerned about her well-being, frequently asking her if she was happy. They also bought her clothes and gave her generous ang pows during Chinese New Year.

When she left she says she wanted to "take a rest and get married" they gave her four gold chains. "All my time there, I only received kindness," she says. "And I tried to pay it back by working hard."

She is now training to return to Singapore. "It's clean, safe and the people are kind," she adds. The best part, she says, is that her agency is negotiating a salary of at least S$450. "I am really looking forward to going back."

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