Poe Ei San is a Myanmar migrant who could not find work as a nurse in affluent Singapore. So she cleans houses instead.
Every day, the 25-year-old Yangon University graduate washes toilets, scrubs floors and wipes down kitchens.
“Because of the low pay and instability in Myanmar, many young people look for jobs overseas,” she said. “My last job as a waitress in Nyaungshwe paid just US$150 a month. It was too little. I want to earn and save as much as possible for my parents and six siblings.”
Poe is among a small but growing number of home cleaners employed through the Household Services Scheme (HSS), a four-year-old programme allowing companies to hire migrant workers from countries including Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka to provide part-time cleaning services for households.
The scheme is primarily designed by the government to meet the demand for part-time help, and by extension reduce Singapore’s reliance on live-in foreign domestic workers, known as maids.
Maid abuse in Singapore has been in the spotlight in recent years following a series of high-profile cases; between 2017 and 2020, there were about 270 police reports of maid abuse annually.
Singapore’s maid population grew about 40% in the past decade, with more than 250,000 maids in the city-state as of 2018. By 2019, around one in five Singapore households employed a maid, up from about one in 13 three decades ago. For the wealthy nation’s largely dual-income families, maids are a popular way to outsource household duties so women can work.
“It is not sustainable for the population of foreign domestic workers to grow unchecked,” the Ministry of Manpower had said in 2018.
Over the years, Singapore’s 1.4 million households have come to depend heavily on maids for chores, cooking and caring for older people, children and pets. These maids come mostly from poorer Asian countries and do not enjoy the same pay and privileges given to Singaporean workers.
The HSS scheme is different. Though it does not set out to reduce abuse, by formalising domestic work it gives cleaners better pay and rights than maids currently have.
The HSS was launched in 2017. Amid a maid shortage caused by tightened borders resulting from Covid-19 restrictions, Singapore on September 1 made the scheme permanent and expanded its scope beyond house cleaning to include more part-time services, such as grocery shopping, car-washing and pet-sitting. The initiative will also allow firms to hire cleaners from Cambodia, among the HSS workers now serving more than 10,000 households.
Burmese ex-maids comprise 90% of cleaners on Helpling, a HSS cleaner booking platform used by about 40 companies on the scheme, the platform’s managing director Zhong Jingjing says. She estimates Singapore has around 1,000-2,000 cleaners, although no statistics are publicly available.
“Most of the Burmese cleaners have prior experience as a maid in Singapore, so they’re reliable and hardworking,” she said. “They already know how to do chores, how to please households.”
Dominic Lim, sales and marketing manager of cleaning firm Fresh Cleaning, added that there’s good awareness in Singapore’s Myanmar community of jobs as cleaners rather than the more demanding – and potentially abusive – role of a maid.
Myanmar is one of Singapore’s three main source countries for maids, together with Indonesia and the Philippines. There were an estimated 50,000 Burmese maids in 2019; the government does not publish statistics for maids broken down by country.
“It’s easy to hire Burmese cleaners because there’s a rising trend of maids switching to become cleaners,” Lim said. “They learn about the job through their friends, word of mouth. They know that (with this role) they get more freedom and rest.”
Unlike maids, HSS cleaners serve multiple homes, live in their own accommodation and are protected under the Employment Act, which dictates a maximum of 44 contractual working hours a week, at least 1.5 times overtime pay, seven days of annual leave, 14 sick days and one rest day per week.
Maids are currently governed under regulations calling simply for ‘acceptable’ accommodation and ‘adequate’ rest. The manpower ministry declined interviews; its website previously stated it is “difficult to enforce the terms of the Employment Act for domestic workers as they work in a home environment and the habits of households vary.”
Experts say the side benefits of HSS are higher salaries, stronger protections and lower chances of abuse for cleaners than maids. However, these benefits are limited by the small number of cleaners.
HSS does not address perceptions of migrant workers as inferior and domestic work as lowly, which are among the core reasons for domestic worker abuse. As a result, cleaners, like maids, remain at risk.
Tightened border controls brought about by Covid-19 have restricted maid inflow and caused an uptick in demand for part-time cleaning, four cleaning companies said. According to the manpower ministry, the number of companies registered with HSS jumped from 50 in 2019 to 76 in 2021.
Helpling’s clientele used to be expat-heavy, but now comprises mainly Singaporeans, particularly younger families living in government apartments in newer areas like Punggol and Choa Chu Kang.
As a maid, your employer talks down to you. But customers see you as coming to help them. They’re grateful you’re there
Another cleaning firm, United Channel Construction & Facility Services, whose clients are mostly condominium dwellers, said some customers book cleaners as often as five days a week. The firm, which also runs an agency specialising in Burmese maids, said several customers who hired part-time cleaners while waiting for maids to become available have since become converts.
Customers like having their homes to themselves, without needing to allocate food and board for an additional person, manager Flora Sha said.
“The cleaner just comes for a few hours, then goes. Clients enjoy the privacy of not living with a helper 24/7. They’re happy with this arrangement, they feel more comfortable.”
Cleaners also see the benefits of part-time services. “As a maid, your employer talks down to you. But customers see you as coming to help them. They’re grateful you’re there,” said Phyo Phyo Ei, a Burmese migrant who worked as a maid in Singapore for almost a decade before switching to home cleaning.
The 36-year-old cleaning supervisor now earns S$1,000 (US$735) per month – double her salary as a maid, though half of it is spent on food, public transport and necessities. “Though my savings end up the same, I prefer being a cleaner for the freedom,” she said.
Tan Hui Bin, operations manager of cleaning firm A1 Facility Services, said raising maids’ salaries could be an effective way to maintain demand for HSS cleaners, as the price difference is less. Companies offer part-time home cleaning at about S$20-$25 (US$15-18) an hour, with slots ranging from two to eight hours.
While maids have a fixed salary, cleaners’ salaries comprise basic pay, allowances for food and transport, overtime pay and incentives. As a result, their total pay can be double or triple that of a maid.
A weekly, three-hour home cleaning package comes to around S$240-300 (US$175-220) a month, while a full-time maid costs about S$450-650 (US$330-480) monthly.
having a live-in domestic worker means the availability of round-the-clock care.
Despite comprising just around a tenth of Singapore’s average household income, maids’ salaries often exceed what they can earn back home, thanks to the Republic’s strong exchange rate. While part-time cleaners have been available in Singapore for decades, the significantly lower per-hour cost of a maid, plus their 24/7 availability, have made them the primary choice for household help.
“The cost of a part-time cleaner is still quite high compared to a live-in helper, which I’ve raised in Parliament,” member of Parliament Louis Ng said. “We need to level the playing field, which is why I’m calling for cleaning subsidies similar to those for maids, where households with elderly and children pay less.”
The government currently hands out maid levy concessions to households with disabled members, residents above the age of 67 and children under 16.
Jaya Anil Kumar, research and advocacy manager for welfare group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), said there is “no way” HSS cleaners can replace maids, as Singaporeans are “accustomed to enjoying help from domestic workers in multiple roles – babysitting, pet sitting, cooking, housekeeping, car cleaning – for a very low fee.”
“The role of domestic workers has evolved over the years from housework to include specialised caregiving work, particularly for the elderly,” she added. “Many households still prefer domestic workers to fulfil their caregiving needs as alternative care arrangements are too costly, and having a live-in domestic worker means the availability of round-the-clock care.”
Though unintended, one major benefit of the HSS model is the lower risk of abuse. Law experts and welfare groups say HSS eliminates the live-in factor leaving maids vulnerable to abuse, as they can be isolated and denied access to a phone.
Amarjit Singh Sidhu, a lawyer who handles maid abuse cases, said cleaners have more interaction with society, which provides more opportunities to report abuse.
Living separately from the families they work for also results in fewer opportunities for ill treatment and abuse of cleaners, said Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan. With a clearer distinction between their residence and place of work, the rights, welfare and interests of cleaners can be better safeguarded, he said.
Abuse is a job hazard of which university graduate Poe is well aware, having seen news in February of the death of Piang Ngaih Don. The Burmese maid endured 14 months of torture and starvation at the hands of her Singapore employer. Piang was burned, beaten and choked, lost 15 kilograms and on her final nights slept on the floor, chained to a window grille.
Poe was in Myanmar, searching for a job in Singapore, when she saw the headlines. “I didn’t want to be a maid after that,” she said. “Nobody will know if your employer bullies you.”
But despite improved working conditions, HSS cleaners are still subject to unscrupulous employers, HOME’s Jaya said. The organisation helps about 10 to 20 cleaners per year on issues like overwork and unpaid or underpaid wages.
Abuse of domestic employees and cleaners often stems from attitudes devaluing domestic work and a perception of migrants as inferior, she added.
“Many employers feel migrant workers should be grateful that they’re getting a job. There’s a sense of ownership of the worker,” Jaya said. “Abuse arises because employers devalue both domestic work and the domestic worker.”
Cleaning firms say they haven’t seen cases of physical abuse, though some acknowledge verbal abuse happens. There are about 700 customers who have been banned by Helpling for abusive behaviour and failure to pay bills, while United Channel said 30% of customers shout at cleaners.
Due to their reduced isolation compared to domestic workers, cleaners may experience less abuse, Jaya said. But one way to eradicate abuse is to dignify household work. To do this, people must see the value of such work in helping society run smoothly.
While the pandemic has bumped up demand for part-time cleaning, most companies caution this could end once borders open and maids return, slowing the potential for the HSS to improve domestic worker welfare at scale.
A pilot scheme to increase the supply of maids launched earlier this year, with the first cohort of more than 100 maids arriving in Singapore in August and some 2,000 households already expressing interest.
But the new permanence of HSS’s programme for cleaners provides a counterbalance.
“The increased participation numbers, as well as feedback from the companies and their customers, have shown that the scheme is useful in supporting the demand for part-time household services,” the manpower ministry said in an August release.
Tan, the law professor, expects HSS cleaners to grow in popularity as more consumers become aware of them. Expanding the programme’s scope of services is a “step in the right direction,” he added.
HOME’s Jaya said households may still prefer live-in domestic workers, as they offer a wider range of services such as 24-hour caregiving. Therefore, alternative care arrangements are key to making HSS a meaningful replacement.
Said Tan: “Families, such as those with elderly, may require live-in domestic workers. Most are probably keen to have more privacy for themselves, and the workers. Making this distinction between workplace and home is essential.”
Some domestic workers might be needed to be live-in employees, he admits. “But the vast majority need not be and should not be.”
This article was supported with funding and training by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.