A new requirement by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will make agent fees for maids more transparent and possibly prevent employers from being shortchanged.
In a change introduced last week, agents must inform MOM how much they are charging maids for a two-year contract when applying for work permits online.
When the permits are approved, employers get a copy of the in-principle approval, with the fee stated. They can compare it with the service agreements that they should also receive from the agents - which should state the same amount - if agents followed MOM's recommended format.
A sample of MOM's recommended agreement can be found on its website. The move increases transparency by providing employers and maids with more information on their employment terms, said a ministry spokesman.
While agencies are generally law abiding, MOM investigates reports of overcharging, he added.
Engineer Desmond Goon, 32, who employed a maid two months ago, said: "It's clearer so we know how much we are owed when either I or the maid decide that the relationship is not working."
The fee that maids have to pay agents is legally capped at two months' salary for a two-year contract and typically ranges between $800 and $1,200 for two years.
Employers usually pay this in advance for their maids and later deduct it from the maids' salaries.
When a maid decides on a transfer or when an employer decides to terminate her contract, she can ask the agent for a refund, provided that she has cleared her debts with her employer. For instance, if a maid leaves her employer before her first year ends, she can ask for a refund from her agent for the second year that she did not serve. Previously, agents could lump the fees they are charging employers and maids, as well as fees to their foreign counterparts, together.
The practice clouds how much agents are charging the maids, said Ms K. Jayaprema, president of the Association of Employment Agencies of Singapore.
"The association is also trying to push for agents to declare how much they are paying the foreign suppliers," she added. But a concern is that agents would under-declare the amount, she said.
There are about 125,000 Indonesian maids in Singapore, and about 70,000 from the Philippines.
Indonesian Embassy counsellor Sukmo Yuwono praised the move, saying it helps prevent overcharging. "It's a fairer and more transparent system," he added.
Executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics Jolovan Wham said maids may be denied of the chance to ask for refunds because they can be repatriated by employers. "They don't have the right to switch employers freely," he added.
Agencies convicted of overcharging maids face a fine of up to $5,000, and repeat offenders may be jailed up to six months in addition to the fine, said an MOM spokesman.
Their licences may also be revoked and appointment holders could be barred from being agents in the future, he added.
This article was first published on Dec 20, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.