Time to depend more on agencies for help instead of maids

By Dhevarajan Devadas

The difficulties that some families are now facing in hiring maids due to travel restrictions should prompt a rethink of Singapore’s heavy dependence on them.

There were 252,600 foreign domestic workers in Singapore as at June. Many Singaporeans have come to see maids as necessities rather than luxuries.

In other developed countries, domestic workers are hired by only the wealthy due to high minimum wages. Most families needing help get childcare and eldercare services via government bodies, which coordinate with and subsidise professional service providers.

It is time Singapore began to move towards professionalising caregiving services. The Agency for Integrated Care and the Early Childhood Development Agency should expand their capacity to offer highly subsidised eldercare and childcare services to any Singaporean who needs them.

These services and subsidies should become the first stop for families, and be overseen directly by the agencies to ensure consistent quality and cost-effectiveness.

Given the current economic climate, expanding training, placement and wage subsidy schemes for professional care services will make the industry more attractive for Singaporeans seeking secure employment.

Aside from the Government, we as a society also need to adjust our lifestyles and mindsets. Families should get used to doing regular household chores without depending on a live-in maid, including a more equitable sharing of duties between men and women. Those who require only cleaning services should make arrangements with professional cleaners instead.

Employers must recognise the need to exercise flexibility when their workers need to take time off for caregiving needs, and the perennial issue of long working hours has to be tackled by the Government, unions and employers. Current flexible work hours and work-from-home arrangements should become more widespread rather than be privileged job perks.

By reducing our dependence on maids, we can also eliminate the longstanding concerns over mistreatment, abuse and indebtedness faced by maids due to the power imbalance, live-in requirements and excessive recruitment fees charged by agents.

This letter was originally published in the Straits Times.


  1. Hi Dhev! I’ve been meaning to read this post of yours and finally got the chance. I agree that it would be good to find ways to address the many issues that one faces when relying on helpers and the many ways in which employment needs to be flexible so all can partake in caring roles. However, I want to raise one caution in terms of a heavy reliance institutionalised childcare…as it is, due to the cost structures that incentivise full-day childcare arrangements (as opposed to half-day), many kids now spend more time in an institutional environment than the length of a primary school day from ages as young as 2 months in some cases. I worry that this will in turn shape how children grow, their comfort levels with going down unbeaten paths, etc. There is also the other issue of essentially “starting school” super early, which has the effect of Primary 1 being pegged at a higher level than what it was a decade ago. This is regardless of the best intentions of childcare institutions. My hope is that employment becomes more flexible and parents are able (and increasingly willing) to share the heavy caring duties in the early years, with some limited assistance from institutions and better regulated nanny services.


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