Maids die in Singapore; Indonesia calls for safety

May 8, 2012 - 1:56 AM

SINGAPORE (AP) — Eight Indonesian maids have fallen to their deaths from high-rise apartments in Singapore this year, and the Indonesia Embassy said Tuesday it is pushing for a ban on cleaning outside windows.

Indonesia, which supplies about half of Singapore's 200,000 maids, has asked employment agencies to include a clause in work contracts that prohibits maids from cleaning the outside of windows or hanging laundry from high-rise apartments, Indonesian Embassy Counsellor Sukmo Yuwono told the Associated Press.

Singapore's Manpower Ministry is working with Indonesian officials to identify and possibly blacklist agencies and employers who don't ensure maid safety, Yuwono said.

"Our position is ban it," Yuwono said. "We warn against employers giving dangerous jobs like cleaning windows to their maids. It's upsetting. These are human beings dying for nothing."

Singapore is under pressure to improve the working conditions of foreign maids, who live full-time in one in five households in the city-state of 5.2 million people. In March, the government pledged to mandate that maids must be allowed at least one day off a week starting next year.

Last week, a court fined an employer 5,000 Singapore dollars ($4,000) and barred her from hiring domestic workers in the future after a maid fell and died from her fifth-floor apartment last year while cleaning windows standing on a stool.

Eight maids, all Indonesian, have died after falling out of windows while working this year, five of whom were cleaning windows, Singapore's Manpower Ministry said. Four maids fell to their deaths in 2011.

Local media have published photos of maids squatting on windowsills, crawling on ledges or reaching dangerously off-balance to clean the outside of windows in high-rise apartment buildings.

In March, a passer-by snapped a picture of a 26-year-old Indonesian maid who had slipped while cleaning and was dangling from a window ledge eight stories up. Another maid tried to pull her up but after five minutes lost her grip and the woman fell to her death.

"These deaths are very sad," Halimah Yacob, Singapore Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, told the Straits Times. "Employers must constantly drum the message into their maids about being careful when cleaning windows. Once they do that, we will be able to save a lot of lives."

Most of the Indonesian maids in Singapore come from small villages, which may lead some to miscalculate the risk of working on high-rise exteriors.

"When you are used to a very simple life in the village, (there's) no such thing as a high-rise building," said Mareyeami, an Indonesian who has worked as a maid in Singapore for six years. "Maybe they don't know how to clean the windows safely so they will just try their best. In our country, we don't think about our safety, life, all that. We just get the job done."

Indonesia is working with Singapore officials and agencies to improve maid training and raise awareness among employers about maid safety, Yuwono said. The embassy has helped at least one maid return to Indonesia after her employer insisted she climb out on a ledge to clean windows, he said.

"She was so scared," Yuwono said. "But at least she is alive. I have to call the families of the maids who die. It's very hard."

Hong Kong, another popular destination for Indonesian maids, sees far fewer accidental maid deaths because most apartment buildings outsource window cleaning to professionals while 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing blocks that don't provide that service, Yuwono said.

Many Singaporeans who hire maids would likely resist a ban on chores such as cleaning windows or hanging laundry, said Theresa Low, a homemaker who has employed Indonesian maids for 10 years.

"Singaporeans want to get their money's worth," Low said. "They really do work the maids very hard. Singaporeans don't value them, don't treasure them as much as they should. It's a tragic thing. That's somebody's daughter."

Maids from Indonesia are often eager to please the employer, are not accustomed to challenging elders and may not speak up when a task is dangerous, Low said.

"Sometimes they know something is dangerous, but they do it because they want to work hard," said Kartinah Yawikarta, a maid from Indonesia who has worked in Singapore for nine years. "We come here for money. But I always tell the other maids, it's better to go home with no money than to die."

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Associated Press Writer Sharon Chen in Singapore contributed to this story.

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