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Can I have a maid-to-order?

She swept in through the agency door. She ordered the Indonesians among the pink tee-shirted maids to stand up. She proceeded to interrogate them. “You! How long here already?’’, “How many months with your last ma’am?’’ “How many employers you have before?’’

They stood up and answered dutifully. She was not satisfied. She didn’t even look at the agency staff. She swept out of the door, a hurricane with well-coiffed big hair,

“What in heaven’s name was that?’’ I asked the agency staff who was attending to me. “Employer lah,’’ she said. “We get so many like that.’’

My goodness! Was that how you go about looking for a maid? If so, I was doing it all wrong.

My search for a maid agency in Katong Shopping Centre was illuminating, yet disheartening. I’ve never hired a maid before and decided that it was time to get one for my mother. I don’t know enough about the regulations, payments and what not about having a live-in help, so I wandered through the shopping centre peering at the advertisements plastered on the door.

Almost all of them had maids on the ready – transfer maids I was told, those who wanted to change employer. There were so many. And it seemed that maids from Myanmar are in vogue with agencies touting themselves as the “biggest’’, “No. 1’’, “leading’’ and all sorts of marketing words of maids from that relatively new maid source of country. There were also those who touted “no replacement fee’’ and “$1 fee’’ – which I didn’t even bother to look at. There must be a catch here, I thought.

I also avoided those agencies from which emitted very loud voices – staffers shouting down the phone at maids (I think) in broken English and pasar Malay, staffers yelling at maids whom employers had brought in supposedly for a dressing down. One employer was upset that her maid wanted a day off when it appeared that she had agreed to be paid instead. I don’t know what to feel. It was like eavesdropping on parents disciplining their children.

If there is one thing in common among maid agents: They all speak in a very loud voice to the maids, in stern kindergarten teacher style. I cringed. So is this what it means to be “firm’’ with maids?

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I walked through an agency which looked like among the biggest in the building.  An elderly Chinese man attended to me asking me questions about my mother and her needs. I asked him if his agency was CaseTrusted. He said no and changed the subject. I asked why not, and he ducked the question. I let it go.

He said I should take a first-time maid from Myanmar and assured me that they picked up on the language fast. I wasn’t so sure about that and asked about maids who were already here. He handed me a stack of maid bio-data. I flipped through five and discovered all had several employers within a short space of time. How come? He said he didn’t know as they had come from other agencies. But that’s why, he said, I should get a new maid.

As someone bred on a media diet of bad agencies which are not regulated, I was actually quite sure I didn’t want to be among his clients. But, hey, he was giving me an education on security bonds, levy payments and maids’ salaries.

After some hapless wandering, I finally entered an agency with a Case Trust logo and decided that I should just bite the bullet and hire one. It was also because a maid had opened the door of the agency and asked me to come in. There was a garrulous Myanmar maid who had nothing but bad to say about her ex-employer and her co-maid, an Indonesian. There was also a quiet Indian girl who hailed from near the border with Myanmar. English-speaking. She said she quit her employer because she did NOT want a day off but wanted to work and get paid. That’s a change, I thought. Most times, wasn’t the complaint the other way round? Then again, given that they had a loan to pay off to their agents, it might not be a surprise that they preferred to get that out of the way quickly.

Again, I was inducted into the mysteries of maid employment and told to get a certificate for attending the orientation course for first-time employers. I did it online, a two-hour programme which I wish I could fast forward. My maid agent said that no one had failed the test yet and I shouldn’t want to be the first. I had visions of failing. I passed.

I did learn a few things though, such as how the maid should keep her own bank book and work permit. But it never said what should be done about her passport. I know we should give a good place to sleep but I didn’t realise I should get her her own set of toiletries. Then there was some scary stuff about the employers’ legal obligations and the kinds of penalties if you are caught using the maid wrongly. Plenty of stuff on cleaning windows too which, at the end of the course, really amounted to this: Don’t let her clean windows if you can help it.

Now that we’ve fixed on the maid, there remains the big question of what to do with her, a question that is giving my mother sleepless nights. You see, my mother is perfectly ambulant but her aches and pains are getting to her. She also has a penchant of doing heavy-duty housework and she does marketing for three homes, including mine. The family’s fear was that she would strain herself or fall down without anyone knowing. She drives. She lives alone. But she is stressed out wondering if the maid will have enough work to do and wondering how to outfit my brother’s old room for her.

I don’t think the maid would have very much to do actually, given that my mother is a neat freak who has been keeping house all her life. One employer who was at the agency said that my mother was probably someone who would do all the work instead of the maid. And who probably worry more for the maid’s welfare than her own. That’s true, I thought. But it would good for her to have a helper.  

These days, I’ve been reading all about maids who decided to up and go home and leave employers in the lurch. Yes, I was told that the maid’s return would be at the employer’s expense (both plane and train/bus fare) although there was something about the agency coughing up a replacement if that happens – I’m not sure.

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 So many horror stories of maids upping sticks that I’m now wondering if our new maid would launch the same surprise on us.  The bio-datas of the maids I saw at the first agency weren’t promising. They seemed able to quit so easily, especially after their loan had been paid up and they stand to receive the whole pay packet. How many unlucky employers have there been who had to survive several maid changes – and get blacklisted – through no fault of their own, I thought. I hope these job-hopping maids are more the exceptions than the rule.

Predictably, employers will scream “unfair’’ and ask for protection. But really, anyone can quit their job at any time. It’s a free market – and maids are no different.. Non-maid employers also know the pain of training employees only to have them jump ship for a few dollars more. But there’s nothing they can do to stop them, except to make it painful to leave… You take on a maid, you take on the responsibilities as well as the risks.

Maybe the silver lining in this is that we’ll treat our maids better to get them to stay on. The fact remains that the maid is always in a subordinate position at her place of employment. Sir and Mom really have over-riding control over her life. That’s tough enough for the maid. She must at least be given the right to leave employment if she has decided she’s had enough, just as the rest of us do.

I guess getting a good (whatever that means) maid is really the luck of the draw. I’m hoping I get lucky with mine. If she quits on me and my mom, I am definitely not going to blow into agencies like the hurricane with big hair whom I encountered. If I did and if I were a maid, I wouldn’t work for me either.    



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© 2022 Bertha Henson

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