One wonderful advantage that living in Singapore offers is affordable domestic help. Some expats – especially singles or couples without children – find that a maid service once or twice a week is enough. But for others, particularly those with families, a full-time domestic help with cooking, cleaning, shopping, ironing and childcare can be a blessing. Most helpers in Singapore are from the Philippines or Indonesia and are diligent, conscientious women who are working to support their families back home.
Part-time maids are available for between $10 and $20 an hour, and can be hired independently or through a company. (Note: it is illegal for live-in maids to do part-time work for another family.) Full-time, live-in maids cost between $450 and $750 a month, depending on experience. Employers must also pay a monthly levy (currently $265) to the Singaporean government, plus a onetime security bond of $5,000 (not paid upfront, but covered under the insurance scheme). If you’re a working mother, the levy can be tax deductible. If your helper is out of the country for longer than seven days, you can apply for the monthly levy to be waived for that period. Employers are responsible for providing accommodation, insurance, food and medical care for domestic workers, in addition to hiring costs, airfares for bi-annual home leave, transfer costs and an annual bonus.
First-time employers must complete a compulsory Employer’s Orientation Programme that provides them with a basic understanding of their role and responsibilities. This involves attending in person ($30), or taking a three-hour online course ($40). You’ll need a Sing Pass in order to register for the online course.
Most expats give their helper every Sunday and public holidays off, plus a two-week holiday every two years to their home country. To counter the instance of maids working without rest, the Ministry of Manpower mandated that, from 1 January 2013, all employers must give helpers one day off per week (or fairly compensate them, should they be required to work).
Agency fees vary, but for around $400 a maid agency will find you a maid, and will usually give you the chance to interview several potential helpers. Alternatively, you can source a maid yourself and complete the paperwork on the Ministry of Manpower website which provides step-by-step information. Some expats who are leaving Singapore help their maid to find work by advertising on noticeboards or by word of mouth. A reputable website is dwjobs.org, which has been set up as a noticeboard for maids seeking work; the great advantage with this process is that there are no fees for employers and no hefty deductions for maids. Note: be wary of taking the word of an ex-employer if they are transferring a helper and changing to a new one; they can sometimes be generous with the truth in order to “move them on”.
How to conduct the interview: 10 Top Tips
Once you’ve decided to employ a helper, you’ll need to consider interviewing several candidates. Asking the right questions should help you make a choice – even so, try not to rush the decision.
Ask for references, and make sure you can speak to her previous employer – don’t take written references as gospel.
Has she taken any first aid courses? If so, when and with whom? If she hasn’t, does she know any basic first aid? (Ask her to talk you through any procedures she does know.)
What’s her favourite “go to” recipe? Ask her to talk you through how she makes it. This means you can check her spoken English as well.
If she’s transferring from one family in Singapore to another, ask why. If she has transferred from a series of employers, without good reason (for example, the family was leaving Singapore), investigate why.
Is she married, and does she have children? Her personal situation will have some bearing on her skill set.
Find out why she is doing this job. Is she working to support her family back home? Does she have plans to go back? Is she building up to starting a business when she does go home? Finding out about her future plans means that if you do employ her you can help support her, and both of you can work out an exit plan.
Asking typical questions like “Do you like children?” or about cleaning and ironing are pretty pointless. Instead, ask her what she feels her strengths are; what is she best at?
If you have young kids, find out what nursery rhymes she knows, what games she likes to play with children, and recipes she can cook for them.
Set ground rules and make it clear what would be a deal breaker – for example, stealing from you, or asking for money advances.
How would she discipline a child?
What to do once your helper starts: 10 Top Tips
If you have children, pay attention to whether or not they’re happy with your helper. They’re a great barometer of how she interacts with them when you’re not around. They should also treat her with respect.
An annual bonus is a good way to show your appreciation and will encourage loyalty.
Communication can be a challenge. We often sprinkle our speech with idioms that your helper may not understand. If she looks puzzled, rephrase what you’ve said.
Tell your helper to come to you if she needs money, even though you may not be able to give it to her. This avoids the risk of her approaching a loan shark, and she may respond with gratitude and a renewed commitment to work hard.
Tell your helper that dishonesty is grounds for dismissal.
Give your helper a schedule, and let her know the hours you want her to work and the rules of the house. It’s easier to relax rules later than to institute new rules after something has gone wrong.
Expect to spend up to two months training your helper the way you like things done – from cooking to learning the daily routine. You aren’t superwoman, and neither is she. Learn to overlook some things, and concentrate on what you’re each better at.
You’re the employer, not a friend, but show empathy for the helper’s situation too. They’re away from their families and in a stranger’s home.
Don’t overreact. You don’t want a helper hiding things from you because she’s scared. But you also don’t want to tiptoe around them.
Don’t flaunt material things. Keep bank accounts out of the way if possible. There’s a huge financial disparity, so be sensitive about it.
Only looking for part-time help?
Some people, especially those without children and those who travel regularly, prefer to hire a part-time maid as and when needed. There are hundreds of agencies that can help with recruitment. A-Team Amahs & Cleaners (a-team.com.sg) specialises in part-time maids and nannies for domestic cleaning, spring-cleaning and babysitting.
This article first appeared in the EL City Guide, 2015/2016.