Use levy for maids' training and welfare

Every month, employers of foreign domestic workers here pay up to $265 in tax to the Government.

The "maid levy", as it is known, is meant to moderate demand by making it more expensive for families to engage a maid.

A review initiated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in late July, however, has prompted speculation by industry players that this levy is about to be reduced.

There is no clear indication whether or not there will be a cut.

However, if it happens, a reduction would certainly be consistent with the recent practice of the Government reducing levies to help families deal with the rising cost of hiring domestic help.

The last time levies were increased was in 1998, from $330 to $345. Since then, the levy has fallen - to $295 in 2005, then to $265 in 2007, where it remains today.

But instead of focusing on the amount, it would be better if the ongoing review goes beyond this to see how the money collected can be used to address a long-running problem in the industry - the high turnover of maids.

Official data last year showed that only 42 per cent of maids placed in households by agencies between October 2009 and October 2011 stayed with the same employer for at least a year.

There are two reasons for the high turnover. First, maids complain they are not paid enough.

Employers argue that they can't pay more as they are already taxed by the Government.

Second, employers bemoan the poor quality of the maids and ask for replacements. Agents counter that standards can be improved only if salaries are raised.

A vicious circle ensues. But it can be broken if at least part of the levy, reduced or otherwise, is channelled to different uses. Currently, the levy goes into the Consolidated Fund used to pay for the Government's operating expenditure.

But there is another approach.

Part of the levy can be placed in a fund to train maids and look after their welfare.

Domestic maids usually get some training before they leave their respective countries. But standards vary. In newer source countries such as Myanmar, it is common for maids to leave for Singapore without any training at all.

One employer complained that her Myanmar maid didn't even know how to boil an egg, and sent her home after a week.

In Singapore, maids can attend courses in English, eldercare and cooking, among others. Many of these classes are run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and religious groups and are conducted by volunteers, with varying standards. Fees are subsidised, but even the regular fee of $10 to $20 - about a day's earnings for maids - is a deterrent.

MOM should step in. Domestic workers will benefit if the standards of these courses are more uniform, with the ministry taking the lead in their design and operation in partnership with the NGOs.

The ministry can even go a step further by testing the maids and offering certificates to those who do well.

By doing this, MOM will be following in the footsteps of the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), which is involved in skills assessment and the training of foreign construction workers, a move that has been welcomed by the construction industry. All new foreign construction workers must pass a skills certification test designed and conducted by BCA before coming to Singapore. To prepare for the tests, workers attend a course in training centres in their countries approved by BCA.

The support of construction company bosses shows that employers are more likely to be assured of the quality of the courses if they are endorsed by the authorities.

A similar programme targeted at maids and funded by the levy should be offered to maids free of charge. NGOs currently involved in training maids would also benefit from grants to pay for new equipment such as computers and ovens to conduct the classes. The money could even be used to fund a weekend hub where maids can take part in training programmes and recreational activities.

The Straits Times reported recently that high rentals are preventing two NGOs from setting up such a centre.

Since January, maids have been entitled to a mandatory weekly day off. But they do not have dedicated places with amenities specially tailored to their needs to spend their spare time.

A domestic workers' hub, say, with training rooms, an amphitheatre to screen Tagalog movies, hair-dressing salons and Filipino or Indonesian minimarts would be welcomed by many maids. Having such a facility paid for by an employers' levy would send a signal that Singapore appreciates them.

By using the levy to pay for the training of maids and provide for their recreational needs, Singapore can expect to attract betterquality maids.

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