10 maid agencies face temporary ban

Ms Rowena, a Filipino maid, came to Singapore as a tourist first, to avoid high fees. Philippine Embassy cracks down on agencies flouting Manila's recruitment rules. -- ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN


THE Philippine Embassy will blacklist up to 10 Singapore maid agencies by the end of the month and has warned that more could follow if they continue flouting recruitment rules set by Manila.

The embassy stepped up enforcement of the rules last year, although they were introduced more than a decade ago.

Agencies blacklisted face a temporary ban on bringing in domestic workers from the country, though the embassy would not say how long such bans would last.

So far only two have been blacklisted. Both large agencies were reinstated in less than a week last June after they agreed to pay for the maids' plane tickets home so they could file compensation claims in Manila.

The Philippine government wants employers to bear domestic workers' placement fees, which on average cost $2,000, or four months' salary. It wants to prevent maids from having to pay for this.

Currently, employers pay agencies $400 to $600 to hire a Filipino maid, but the requirements will see this rising to between $2,400 and $2,600.

The 10 agencies under investigation have allegedly been charging maids fees above the market average.

Philippine labour attache Vicente Cabe said he has evidence to prove they have charged Filipino domestic helpers between $3,000 and $4,000 or six to eight months in salary for placement fees.

Mr Cabe said he did random checks on maids and asked them to show receipts of the placement fees they paid. He declined to reveal the names of the agencies under investigation but warned that more will be blacklisted in the next few months.

He insisted: "I will blacklist agencies, even those who charge one or two months in placement fees, as long as I have evidence to show that they are doing it.

"If you cannot follow our rules, then don't do business with us."

However agents, who asked not to be named for fear of a backlash by the embassy, said passing on all costs to employers is not feasible and that Manila's tough stance will force them to go "underground".

They said they will bring in women as tourists instead of going through the legitimate route of declaring to the Philippine government that they are overseas workers.The women would be working legally in Singapore as the agents will help them to apply for work permits after they arrive.

But it would mean the women would not be entitled to the employment terms set by Manila such as being charged no placement fees, having four days off a month and a monthly salary of at least US$400 (S$495).

The agents said they will get their Philippine counterparts to offer bribes of about $1,200 to immigration officers and airline ticketing staff to allow the women to leave the Philippines with "no questions asked". Such officers and airline staff are trained to ask those leaving the country to show proof that they are tourists - such as by showing they have enough money to spend and possess a return air ticket.

Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) president K. Jayaprema said the maids would lose out if they are brought into Singapore as tourists. Some agents might take the opportunity to jack up their placement fees to as much as $4,000. Others might get the women to work for less than the Philippines' minimum wage because they would no longer be covered by Manila's laws.

Ms Jayaprema said the Philippine government should accept the association's appeal to allow agents here to charge the maids up to two months of their pay in placement fees or about $1,000. She said this will encourage agents to bring workers in legitimately. The association has not received a response to its appeal letter, sent to Manila last month.

However Ms Bridget Tan, chief executive of foreign workers' group, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said it would be difficult for agents to bring in domestic workers illegally as Manila has cracked down on corrupt immigration officers and said Singapore agents can be charged with trafficking in the Philippines.

There are about 70,000 Filipino maids in Singapore. Some have admitted coming here as tourists after hearing that others who came here legitimately were charged up to $3,000.

One, who asked to be identified only as Ms Rowena, 41, said: "On paper the maids were not being charged any fees. But the agent deducted their salaries anyway once they got here. I found an agent who charged me only $2,000 even though I came in as a tourist, so I thought why not?"

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