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Underage maids: Onus on agencies to ensure entry norms

  • The Straits Times (29 December 2010): Underage maids: Onus on agencies to ensure entry norms
  • The Straits Times (25 December 2010): Murder case highlights underage maids issue
  • The Straits Times (25 December 2010): 'Not unusual' for maids to fake their age
  • Lianhe Zaobao (27 December 2010): The issue of maids who falsely declare their age

Underage maids: Onus on agencies to ensure entry norms
- The Straits Times, 29 December 2010

     We would like to respond to the recent coverage on under-aged Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) in Singapore (ST, 25 Dec).

2.   In 2004, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) introduced measures to ensure that FDWs who come to Singapore to work are mature and able to perform domestic work. This included raising the FDWs’ minimum age from 18 to 23 years. Mature FDWs are more mature and responsible, as they are better able to take care of themselves and adapt to a foreign working environment.

3.   MOM does not condone the employment of under-aged FDWs in Singapore. The FDW’s particulars, including her age, will be verified against her official passport details when she reports to the Work Pass Services Centre. Staff at the centre also interview FDWs selectively to verify their application details. FDWs found to be under-aged will not be allowed to work here.

4.   The authorities in the source countries, and EAs in both the source country and Singapore, also play a major role in ensuring that FDWs coming to Singapore are not under-aged. As the passport is an official document issued by the source country authorities, it is the primary document for identification and age verification. It is therefore important for authorities in the source country to ensure accuracy of such details. EAs, as the first point of contact for FDWs and the FDW-employer intermediary, should also exercise due diligence in verifying the FDW’s age. This includes interviewing the FDWs and verifying their passports, birth documents and educational certificates.

5.   Under the Employment Agency Licensing Conditions, the onus is on EAs to ensure that workers brought into Singapore meet MOM’s entry requirements. This year, 14 EAs were warned for bringing in under-aged FDWs, of which four were also issued demerit points. The EA that brought in the 16-year old Indonesian FDW Nurhayati was already under investigation for other offences prior to this incident and we are in the process of revoking its licence. MOM is sending all EAs a circular to remind them that that bringing in under-aged FDWs is an offence. We will continue to step up our surveillance and enforcement efforts.

6.   Employers are also encouraged to interview the FDWs before employing, to ensure that they are well-equipped to handle the workload. Employers who discover that their FDWs are under-aged should report the matter to MOM immediately.

Murder case highlights underage maids issue
- The Straits Times, 25 December 2010

The murder charge against an Indonesian maid accused of killing her employer's daughter was amended yesterday to reflect her age as 16 instead of 24 as stated in her travel document.

This latest development in the case of Nurhayati, accused of murdering Linda Lee Yee Lin, 12, who was physically and mentally disabled, raises the question of how she was able to come here to work as a maid.

It will also affect how she is tried and punished if found guilty.
Anyone below 18 convicted of a capital charge will not hang but will be detained at the President's pleasure.

This is a legal term to mean the person will be jailed indefinitely. His conduct and progress will be reviewed periodically and when found suitable for release, a recommendation will be made to the President, who may then direct the release.

Since January 2005, the Ministry of Manpower has required all foreign maids who work here to be at least 23 years old, have eight years of formal schooling and to be literate and numerate.
Nurhayati's lawyer, Mr Mohamed Muzammil Mohamed, who was engaged by the Indonesian Embassy to act for her, found out that she was, in fact, 16.

Interviewed outside the courtroom, he said he had verified her age from her school documents and from talking to her 24-year-old brother.

Yesterday, the prosecution sought a further remand for her to be examined by a psychiatrist, after a three-week remand for psychiatric evaluation.

As she is only 16, she will now be examined by a child psychiatrist.

Maid agency owners said that despite the age ruling, they have heard of cases of maids lying about their age. Most lie about their age by about three to five years, they said.

They added that it is hard to verify their ages given how some do not have proper identification records like birth certificates.

Some maids lie as they feel the minimum age of 23 is too high. They prefer to come and work here when they are younger because they would be thinking of settling down in their mid-20s.

A former state counsel now in private practice said the authenticity of age is very much an issue for people who come from villages because some fake their ages to come to work here.

The lawyer, who did not want to be named, said Nurhayati may face other offences such as false declaration, which could be stood down pending the trial of the most serious offence she faces.

Nurhayati, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was hired in October to care for her employer's only child, who had a low IQ and attended a special needs school near her home.
On Nov 24, Linda, whose father is a construction company supervisor and mother a sales promoter, was found dead at about 6am at the foot of her HDB block in Hougang Street 51.
Mr Muzammil told reporters that he and embassy officials travelled to Indramayu in West Java last week and spoke to Nurhayati's mother and elder brother.

'They are extremely concerned with the well-being of Nurhayati,' he said.

Her father, a fisherman, who is out at sea on a Taiwanese trawler, does not know about the case. She has three siblings.
He said she finished her primary school education and dropped out after two years in secondary school as her family could not afford it.

Linda's parents were not home when The Straits Times visited their Hougang flat yesterday.

Neighbours who had seen Nurhayati were surprised to learn that she was just 16. They said that while she did not look 24, they thought she was about 20.

Mr Charlie Seah, 53, who lives next door, added: 'It was hard to tell how old she was because her face looked young and she had a small build.'

'Not unusual' for maids to fake their age
- The Straits Times, 25 December 2010

Some come from places with no proper records, say maid agencies 

It is not unusual for maids to fake their ages to work in Singapore, said agencies here.

They have seen some lying about their ages, by about three to five years on average.

It is difficult to determine for sure if the maids are lying because they come from countries which may not keep proper identification records.

For example, it is especially hard to verify the ages of Indonesian maids as many do not have birth certificates.
'When they want to get a passport, they normally just go with their family to the village head to verify their identity,' said Mr P. Chan, the owner of a maid agency with branches in areas like Yio Chu Kang and Upper Bukit Timah.

Ms Shirley Ng, president of the Association of Employment Agencies Singapore, said the problem has become more prevalent since the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) increased the minimum age requirement of all foreign maids from 18 to 23 in 2005.

The change was based on how older and better-educated maids are more likely to be able to take care of children and elderly people, and to pose fewer problems for their employers.
They would also be better able to adjust to the faster pace of life here.

Among other requirements, maids need at least eight years of formal schooling back home before they can work here.

Ms Ng said maid agencies usually check the birth documents and educational certificates to verify the actual age of the maids. Some interview maids in their home countries to observe their body language and how they look.

Maid agency FME Management is one of them. Its manager, Mr Allan Seow, said: 'We will try to check if she is suitable during the interview, like if she sounds too immature or unprepared, we will send her back.'

If a maid is caught falsely declaring her age, the agency here will be held accountable, and usually faces a penalty of three demerit points meted out by MOM, said Ms Ng.

If an agency chalks up more than 12 points, it will be issued a warning and put on a surveillance list. It may have its licence revoked if it commits further offences.

While agents such as Apple Maid Agency called cases of maids faking their ages 'rare', most said they have heard of the practice.

But even if they suspect a helper has lied about her age, it is hard to prove as her passport may carry a false age.

Mr Chan, who has been in the industry for 10 years, said it is usually up to MOM to sniff out such cases.

Mr Seow also pointed out that the problem exists because it is the younger ones who want to come here to work.

'The older ones who are 25, 26, might not want to come as they want to get married and settle down,' he said.

Apple Maid Agency said it uses school certification to verify ages. Its manager, Ms Suzette Oligo, said that the agency will look at the certificate to determine the year that the helper went to school and, from there, calculate her real age.

Mr Edmund Pooh of Universal Employment Agency suggested an independent body be set up to verify the age and qualifications of maids here.

The issue of maids who falsely declare their age
- Lianhe Zaobao, 27 December 2010

Indonesian foreign domestic worker (FDW), Nurhayati, who was alleged of causing a 12-year old girl to fall to her death from a high rise flat in Hougang, was found to be 16 years old instead of 24 years old.

Defense lawyer and Indonesian Embassy official visited the accused’s hometown and found the age stated on her school records to be different from her passport.

There is at least 8 years difference between a 16 year old young girl and a 24 year old adult female. Generally, there will be a vast difference in terms of their appearances, body language and ability to adapt to foreign places. It is only natural for the defense lawyer to investigate.

When presenting the charge to the court last Friday, the prosecutor had amended the accused’s age from 24 years old to 16 years old. With this amendment, the accused is considered under-aged and would not be given the capital sentence even if she is found guilty.

This case brings forth an issue for our consideration: “How serious is the problem of false declaration of age by FDWs? What precautions should we be taking?”

Firstly, we should not diminish this case by regarding it as an isolated incident. If there are a number of under-aged FDWs in our country, it impacts our image negatively. This is especially so when FDWs come from neighboring countries close to us. Even if the problem originated from the source country, we cannot say that the local agents who brought them in need not be responsible for this. If there is an offence, the Government has the authority to enforce the law.

Since Jan 2005, the Ministry of Manpower has implemented stricter requirements for FDWs such as raising the minimum age to 23 years old, requiring FDWs to have at least 8 years of formal education and possessing basic literacy and numeracy skills. Obviously, this is to ensure that FDWs who come to work in Singapore are mentally mature, stable, able to work independently, able to adapt to the local environment and quick to learn the necessary skills.

Employment agents who infringed these regulations are also subjected to a demerit point system. Licensees who accumulated 12 points within a year will have their licenses revoked.

However, regulations are only regulations. Can the Government’s regulations really prevent FDWs from falsely declaring their age?

Instead of tightening regulations, we should perhaps study the reasons behind why FDWs are falsely declaring their age.
FDWs who left their hometowns in Indonesia normally come from poor villages. Poor families with daughters who are not studying or working are sent off to work as FDWs in Singapore where the wages are higher. This causes them to over declare their age. It is not difficult and doing so can even be a norm there.

Indonesian agents who are in the business are in the position to make a first-cut assessment on the FDWs’ eligibilities. They are familiar with the situation in the source country and should know where to start. We cannot deny that there may be agents in the source country who only look after their own interests and do not seriously ensure FDWs meet our requirements. Local agents should not shun responsibilities. If there is “reasonable doubt,” they can interview the FDWs to understand her family background better or seek the help of Indonesia Embassy. This can help to expose cases of false declaration.

Employers should also be vigilant. If they find an FDW’s age dubious through their day to day interactions, they should pursue the matter with the agents. They should not continue to employ the FDW even though her performance may be satisfactory. Under any circumstances, it is wrong for employers to hire underage FDWs.

It may not be easy to completely prevent FDWs from falsely declaring their age but local agents should be proactive in coming up with a collective strategy to build up a more stringent system to assess FDW’s eligibilities.

The issue of false declaration of age by FDWs sounds a warning for our society. If under-aged FDWs are largely infiltrating into our local homes, it is an insult to our progress.