Mobile phones are increasingly causing rifts between domestic helpers and employers here. The number of complaints about maids using phones has doubled in the past two years, say maid agents.
Such complaints used to make up 20 per cent of all grouses. At the Orange Employment Agency, they now make up seven in 10, said owner Shirley Ng. "It's the top peeve employers have," she said. "Some will ask for maids who do not want mobile phones."
Many employers claim their maids spend too much time on their phones organising their social lives instead of doing their job. Ms Ng said some employers are also concerned maids might become addicted to using their phones and end up stealing to fund the habit.
A poll of 670 maids in Singapore by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) showed that at least 70 per cent of them experienced communication restrictions, with more than 100 saying they have had their phones taken away.
The phone is a constant distraction, said Madam Sim C. K., who allows her maid to use it only after 8pm. "I'm scared that if she takes her eye off my kid or my mother (who uses a wheelchair), they may fall or cut themselves," she said.
Once, her mother almost slipped and fell in the toilet while the maid was using her phone, she said.
Agents said some maids have two phones - one to surrender to employers, the other to use in secret.
Ms Girlie Rencodo Gulay, a domestic worker from the Philippines, said she has no choice but to hide her mobile phone.
"I asked my employer if I could have a phone and he said no," she said. "I needed to keep in touch with my husband, sick mother and three children. After I got my phone, I felt guilty. I know my obligations as a maid, but I didn't know what else to do."
Agents urged employers to set up ground rules early.
"But the rules need to be fair," said Ms Ng. For example, she advised employers to let their maids use phones earlier in the evening because their family members do not stay up late in the villages.
Ms Ng said: "It's not practical to expect maids not to have mobile phones these days. It's a way for them to talk to their family."
In fact, employment agency Best Home started giving free prepaid SIM cards to helpers last year after an increasing number of employers complained that their maids racked up bills on their home phones of up to $1,000.
Best Home owner Tay Khoon Beng said: "The employers know that I've given the (maids) the SIM cards, so it encourages them to talk about mobile phone usage.
"The cards also teach maids personal responsibility. They need to be careful not to overspend on phone calls and data."
Not every employer disapproves. Mrs Yang M. S. likes her maid from Myanmar to have a phone - not least because it helps her look up recipes online.
"It's very convenient for us to communicate through WhatsApp if I need her help in running errands," she added.
A Manpower Ministry spokesman said it had received some 200 complaints from employers each month for the past three years on "a wide range of issues, from bad work attitude to theft".
The number represents less than 0.1 per cent of the 222,500 foreign domestic workers here, he added.
Denying a maid a phone is another way of isolating her, said advocacy groups.
Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Home, said: "We have had many complaints from domestic workers that their employers keep their phones or allow them to use them only at night or on their days off on Sundays only."
Mr Wham said it was important to allow maids their mobile phones because of the live-in nature of their work.
"Employers should not even be keeping the worker's personal property in the first place. It is highly disrespectful and inappropriate. If we don't expect our employers to keep our mobile phones, we should not be doing the same to domestic workers."
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