Myanmar maid dilemma

Myanmar maid dilemma
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Myanmar imposed a five-month ban in September last year, barring its women from working as maids in Singapore, citing ill-treatment. In May this year, it re-imposed the ban.

Mr Kyaw Htin Kyaw, general secretary of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation (MOEAF), said the ban is unlikely to be lifted until a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is signed with its Singaporean counterpart - the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore (AEAS).

Even so, lured by the promise of a better life, thousands of Myanmar women continue to leave the country illegally, putting themselves at risk of exploitation.

Singapore is an ideal destination to work because it is safe and near Myanmar.

Last year, there were 30,000 maids from Myanmar here, reported The Straits Times.

Maid recruiters in Myanmar said they are finding ways to go around the ban.

Methods include flying the women out on two-way tickets, making detours to Thailand instead of flying directly to Singapore and bribing airport officials.

This means additional costs have to be borne by either the Myanmar recruiters or the maids.

Maids in Singapore are paid $450 a month. The Ministry of Manpower stipulates that Singapore employment agents can collect only one month of the maid's salary for each year of service.

But these rules apply only to Singapore agents and the women can end up paying up to eight months of their two-year salary to Myanmar recruiters.

Managing director of Nann Htike Nann employment agency, Mr Nyunt Win, said it cost him between $500 and $600 to fly a domestic worker to Singapore last year.

The cost has since risen to more than $1,000.

He said: "I wanted to increase the amount the maids needed to pay, but they cannot afford the cost - they come to me in the first place because they are very poor and have no career prospects."

With the labour ministry's ban, Myanmar women seeking to become domestic workers overseas are put at greater risk, said labour rights organisations.

Said Dr Thein Than Win, director of health education and research at Humanitarian Organisation of Migration Economics (Home) in Singapore: "Because there are no rules on how much a recruiter in Myanmar can deduct from the women, they are at risk of exploitation from unscrupulous agents who may use the ban as an excuse to charge them more money, claiming it is for bribes for airport officials, airfares or forged documents."


Mr Kyaw Htin Kyaw said that women who leave Myanmar illegally as domestic workers go unprotected and cannot be traced.

"They cannot receive protection such as insurance from the federation or from the Myanmar government if something happens to them," he said.

The priority for Myanmar's labour ministry should be enacting laws to protect its workers rather than stemming the outflow of illegal workers, said industry insiders.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Home, said: "Myanmar workers should be free to choose their place of employment."

He said it is important to have laws that regulate agent fees and proper language and cultural immersion courses so maids can adjust better to their new environment.

Mr Kyaw Htin Kyaw said his federation has been working with AEAS since February last year on an MOU to better define industry practices.

However, both parties still cannot agree on terms such as the number of working hours a day and the number of rest days.

The ban is of no benefit to people like Ms Hall Dar Htwe, 24, who spent her $210 savings last year to take a maid training course.

Now, she is anxiously waiting to see if the ban is lifted so she can help her family of four, who have little money since her father died two years ago.

She said: "I have no qualifications, so this job is a good option for me to earn money for the family, pick up English and learn skills like housekeeping."

The report and photograph are by journalism students from the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. They were part of a group selected to visit Myanmar in July for Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting (Go-Far), a journalism programme organised by the school.

This article was first published on November 6, 2015.
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