UNDERAGE girls in Myanmar are being recruited to work as maids in Singapore, say agents and recruiters.
The teenagers, some as young as 16, have gone through immigration checkpoints using passports with false ages.
Since 2005, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has required all foreign maids who work in Singapore to be at least 23 years old.
It is not known how many underage Myanmar maids are here but anecdotal evidence from agents and recruiters suggests that the numbers are rising.
The Myanmar Embassy in Singapore did not respond to queries by press time. But The Straits Times understands that it is monitoring the issue of underage maids. In recent years, it is believed to have referred some who found themselves in trouble to non-governmental organisations here for shelter.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, a migrant workers group, has sheltered a handful of Myanmar maids below the age of 23 in recent years.
Four Singapore agents, who declined to be named for fear of being penalised by the MOM, said they had each been recommended a handful of women aged below 20 by their recruitment middlemen in Myanmar this year. They suspected the girls were teenagers based on their photos. And their doubts were confirmed when the recruiters could not produce birth and education certificates.
One agent said he received a young-looking Myanmar maid two weeks ago, who claimed to be 23 but later admitted she was 16. He repatriated her immediately.
Ms Cherry Aung, a Singapore-based recruiter of Myanmar maids, said she carries out strict checks.
But she added that more Myanmar middlemen are not playing by the rules as they sense that Singapore agents are growing more lax in taking precautions.
She said they know that Singapore agents are desperate to make up the shortfall caused by months of wrangling with Indonesian recruiters over the fees for their maids.
Ms Aung said the girls in Myanmar are not aware of the regulations here and simply want to earn money for their families.
'They just believe what the recruiters say and lie about their age.'
Myanmar maids make between $400 and $420 a month in Singapore, several times more than what they earn back home.
The Philippines and Indonesia have also introduced more layers of checks to prevent underage maids from being recruited, such as issuing official identification cards for domestic workers.
There are 206,000 maids here, most of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia. An estimated 10,000 are from Myanmar.
Mr Tin Maung Win is a secretary at the Varadhatus Ratanarama Association, which provides counselling to Myanmar workers here. He said the issue of underage maids stems from Myanmar laws which prohibit women from leaving to work as domestic help or in the entertainment sector.
'The women leave the country as tourists. The officials don't check on their ages because in the first place, they are not supposed to be leaving the country to work as domestic workers.'
Government officials in Myanmar can also be bribed to forge ages on passports, said Myanmar workers in Singapore.
A Myanmar maid, who asked to be identified as Myo Myo, arrived in Singapore last year when she was 16, on a passport for which she paid $400. She said in halting English: 'My recruiter is my mother's friend. She said I must say that I am 24 years old. I listened to her because I want to earn money for my family.'
Under the Employment Agency Licensing Conditions, the onus is on agents to ensure that maids brought into Singapore meet the MOM's entry requirements.
In 2010, 14 employment agents received warnings for bringing in underage maids. Four were also issued with demerit points, which put them at risk of losing their licences.