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The need to provide for their families, lack of employment opportunities in their home countries, and promises of a better life are among the reasons why domestic workers go abroad for work, even though they could be breaking the law, said a spokesperson from migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

Underage maids will find it more difficult to cope with their work, which can be an isolating experience especially for first-time domestic workers, the spokesperson added.

“They live and work in their employers’ houses, and may not have strong community support, particularly if they have limited rest days and access to communication devices,” she said.

Domestic workers usually approach HOME for help with other issues. While having informal conversations with them or helping with their cases, HOME then discovers that they are underage or possibly underage.

“Some of them may be aware of the requirement but are told by their agents or employers to lie about their age so that they can continue working in Singapore,” the spokesperson added.

“Many of them do so as they fear losing their jobs if they are found out, and being blacklisted subsequently. This may make them stay in abusive or exploitative situations.”

If domestic workers are found to be younger than 23 and are reported to be so, they are usually repatriated.

The HOME spokesperson also pointed to a lack of regulation in domestic workers’ home countries.

For example, for about five years until 2019, Myanmar banned its citizens from becoming domestic workers in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Macau amid concerns of ill-treatment and abuse.

This allowed unscrupulous agents or middlemen to exploit underage workers as they need not follow regular channels, said the spokesperson.

“Since the ban was lifted, HOME has seen fewer underaged domestic workers from Myanmar. However, this issue is not specific to one country, and as long as there are individuals who wish to exploit underage individuals, the issue will persist,” she added.

Over at the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST), new maids undergo a two-day onboarding and integration programme to help them adapt to life in Singapore.

FAST is supported by MOM and was founded in 2005 when the minimum age requirement kicked in.

Its chief executive director William Chew said that in 2018, the association had an 83 per cent retention rate for maids who went through the programme. It has not come across underage ones so far.

On the first day, domestic workers learn interpersonal and communication skills, house rules and working norms in Singapore, as well as self-care and motivational skills.

They then get to visit different markets on the second day, learn how to buy groceries and use public transport.

Mr Chew added: “Due to their young age, (underage workers) might not have the mental stability to cope with the culture shock, feelings of homesickness when they first arrive.

“Coupled with a lack of working experience and language barriers, they may find it hard to meet the rigorous expectations of employers in Singapore.” IN FOCUS: Why do underage maids risk working illegally in Singapore, and how do they slip through the cracks?

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