After years of not actively enforcing what it once regarded as an illicit cross-boundary trade, Myanmar has legalised the export of maids and drawn up rules to better protect its women abroad.
The rules have been communicated to agents in Singapore in recent weeks, three of which will affect employers here.
First, Myanmar maids must receive a minimum monthly wage of $450.
Second, they must get at least a day off in a month, according to Myanmar newspaper reports.
Third, their recruitment fees must not exceed four months of their salary.
But agents in Singapore said that the rules have yet to be implemented, and could remain loosely enforced for some time.
Most Myanmar maids arriving here are still being paid between $400 and $430, and do not get any days off. They are also charged up to eight months of salary - or more than $3,000 - in recruitment fees, which lets employers pay fees as low as $300.
In Singapore, since Jan 1 last year, all maids hired or who have their work permits renewed must get a weekly day off or pay in lieu.
The governments of the Philippines and Indonesia have mandated minimum monthly wages for maids of $500 and $450 respectively, and a weekly day off. The Philippines does not want maids to pay any recruitment fee, while Indonesia has capped it at about $2,000, or six months' salary.
Industry players said the changes for the hiring of Myanmar maids are important, as they form the fastest growing group of domestic workers here and need better safeguards.
The number of Myanmar maids in Singapore has grown by 50 per cent over the past two years, from about 20,000 to 30,000 now.
In comparison, over the same period, the number of Indonesian maids increased by 25 per cent - from 100,000 to 125,000 - while that of Filipinos grew by about 30 per cent, from 55,000 to 70,000. These were based on estimates by embassies and maid agents.
Agents said Myanmar's legalisation will also help employers here.
There have been persistent complaints about the maids' poor training and high turnover. Agents estimate that the majority of Myanmar maids change employers at least twice in their first six months in Singapore.
There are also more runaways. Between last September and last month, 61 maids sought shelter with migrant worker group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), compared with 49 in the same period in 2012.
The churn is partly because their work was seen as illegal back home. Many left Myanmar as tourists without any training and were offered poor employment terms.
"Many Myanmar maids are not trained, and their recruitment fees are too high. That is why the turnover is so high," said Best Home Employment Agency owner Tay Khoon Beng.
Home's executive director Jolovan Wham agreed, saying that many ran away because they were discouraged by the hefty recruitment fees they paid.
"Up to eight months of their salary goes to paying the recruitment fees. In the meantime, they can't send any money home. So many just give up and run away."
The Myanmar government has given the nod to Singapore and Hong Kong to source for maids legally. Taiwan is expected to receive approval too.
Besides the new rules, the women will have to attend month-long training programmes in centres in Myanmar, where they will be taught simple English and housekeeping skills, and learn about life in Singapore.
At least 10 training centres have been established since last year, of which two are run by Singapore training course provider Grace Management & Consultancy Services and its Myanmar partners.
Its managing director, Mr Richard Khoo, said: "We will ensure the maids learn about life in a city like Singapore. We don't want them to have a culture shock."
Mr Stephen Chia, who owns 21st Century Employment Agency, said the Myanmar government needs time to put in place a system to enforce the rules, and believes that the quality of maids will improve soon.
Employers agreed that the Myanmar maids will be able to work well here with better training.
Businesswoman Katherine Han, 70, who employs two Myanmar maids, said: "I find that the maids learn quickly. We just need to spend more time to coach them."
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