Radha Basu - Straits Times Indonesia
Singapore. At least 4,000 foreign maids, most of them Indonesians, ran away from their employers' homes here last year, according to their embassies and shelters for foreign workers.
Most complained they were homesick or stressed out by tough work conditions. Most had also been here for under six months and had yet to earn a single month's pay as they were still repaying hefty 'loans' - of up to 11 months' salary - to employers.
Few ran away because of physical abuse. Instead, most complained about overwork, employers who scolded them all the time and the frustration of working without pay.
The majority of the runaways were Indonesians, according to figures obtained from the Indonesian and Philippine embassies and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), a charity that runs a shelter for migrant workers.
In most cases, the runaways' employers and agents are informed and efforts are made to resolve the dispute. Many of the maids end up being sent home or transferred to new employers.
The police are informed in cases involving physical abuse, while the Ministry of Manpower is alerted of cases of unfair treatment and salary disputes. The ministry does not keep statistics of maids who run away to shelters and therefore are accounted for, but tracks cases of missing maids who disappear altogether.
The Indonesian Embassy said about 2,530 maids fled their employers' homes and sought refuge at the embassy last year, up from around 2,030 in 2009. In the first five weeks of this year, another 230 women turned up.
Other runaway maids went to their respective embassies or to shelters run by agencies helping foreign workers.
The Indonesian Embassy began keeping comprehensive data on runaways in 2009, but its spokesman said recent numbers were the highest since it opened a shelter for maids in 2003.
In its first year, the shelter saw barely 50 women. Now there are typically around 130 present at any given time.
A spokesman for Home said its shelter has also seen a spike in runaways. About 1,000 showed up at their doorstep in its last financial year ending in March last year, up from around 850 the year before.
At the Philippines Embassy, the number fell slightly from 630 in 2009 to around 570 last year. There were fewer new Filipino maids arriving here.
The two embassies and Home run the biggest shelters, but runaways also turn up at dormitories run by various charitable groups as well as their agents' homes.
The Sri Lankan and Indian High Commissions, whose nationals also work here as maids, do not provide live-in facilities for runaways.
Indonesian Embassy spokesman Fahmi Aris Innayah told The Straits Times it was concerned at the rise in the number of runaway maids.
"Frustration and hopelessness due to increasing periods of salary deduction, we believe, is a key cause for the women to run away," he said.
Employers typically pay a maid's 'placement fees', which cover the debt she has incurred getting to Singapore to work. Fahmi said that the sum had risen from roughly the equivalent of three months' pay a decade ago to up to 11 months' pay today. This means a maid on a two-year contract does not receive more than $10 or $20 a month - if she gets anything at all - for up to 11 months.
He added that with maids preferring to go to Taiwan and Hong Kong because of better pay and perks, many of those arriving here were inexperienced and unable to withstand the job's demands.
Interviews with agents, maids and migrant groups showed that Indonesians also tended to receive lower pay and have fewer days off.
When The Straits Times was at the embassy's shelter on Monday, 11 runaway maids arrived.
Clad in a blue sweater and jeans, Lina Hasanah walked in, pulling a small suitcase. The 30-year-old had been working for a family of six since early December. She claimed that she had been ill with a high fever and vomiting for two weeks, but her employer had refused to take her to a doctor. So she ran away.
Next, Eka Rislianasari, 28, arrived, followed minutes later by Eni Kisyanti, 23.
Eka said her employer punished her by making her stand on a stool under the shower for fumbling while transferring her employer's invalid father from a chair to the bed. Eni, 23, claimed her boss was "always angry" with her and she could not stand it any more.
All three women had been with their employers less than six months.
Embassy officials say many of the women's complaints cannot be proven and some are even found to be false. But it is rare for the women to return to their employers. About 70 per cent are repatriated and the rest move to new employers.
The vice-president of the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore, Allan Wee, thought the number of newcomers who ran away was "alarming" considering that Singapore's maid pool increased by only around 6,000 for the whole of 2009.
But he was not surprised at the trend.
"Many Singapore employers do not want experienced domestic workers as they might be too 'street smart' or have their own 'networks'," he said. "But employing women fresh from the village has its own problems."
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.
Radha Basu - Straits Times Indonesia