The biggest maid agent association here has submitted a proposal to the Government to cap the fees that employers pay on behalf of their maids, to stop agents from jacking up fees.
The Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) (AEAS) is calling for this fee - which can be as high as $4,000 - to be capped at around $1,000 instead.
As maids usually cannot afford the fee, employers "lend" them the money, getting the money back through deductions from the maids' salaries. The women can thus go without pay for up to nine months or take home as little as $10 to $20 each month.
The high fees have caused maids to run away. Bosses suffer too, said Ms K. Jayaprema, president of the AEAS, who sent the proposal to the Manpower Ministry (MOM) on Monday.
Some employers do not get any refund for the money they pay on behalf of the maids when the women quit. "There are contracts which state that employers will not get any money back if their maid is transferred to a new boss within two or three months," she said.
Under current legislation, maid agents here can charge workers recruitment fees of only up to two months of their salaries - maids earn about $500 a month.
But some Singapore agents collude with overseas recruiters to collect more than what is allowed here, said Ms Jayaprema. The proposal aims to improve the current law by spelling out that employers should not pay more than a certain sum to agents on behalf of maids.
A lack of records also makes the current rule hard to enforce.
"Some Singapore agents are earning four or more months of the maids' salaries," said Ms Jayaprema. "But we can't prove it because the money goes into overseas bank accounts or there is no paper trail," she said.
But this can be addressed if maids take loans from foreign banks and pay monthly. "MOM will be able to see how much the maids are paying and to whom," she added.
The AEAS suggests that the MOM work with foreign countries to set up loan schemes with overseas financial institutions.
When contacted, the MOM said it is reviewing the recommendations by the AEAS and that it takes a strong stance against maids being overcharged in fees. In the past two years, 10 agents were each fined $2,500 or $3,000 for charging excessive fees.
Maid agents interviewed by The Straits Times welcomed the proposal but said that, if it is adopted, employers will likely have to pay a higher service fee to maid agents. This may rise from around $400 to $1,000 now to about $2,000.
"Right now, maid agents are passing on most of the cost to the maids and charging employers low fees. They will have to balance the cost out more," said Ms Shirley Ng, owner of Orange Employment Agency.
This article was first published on July 17, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.