Troubled by border restrictions

Amir Yusof

SINGAPORE (CNA) – When Heather Huang was approaching her due date in early August, she was feeling desperate as she could not hire a confinement nanny.

The 30-year-old business owner was expecting her first born but the agencies she contacted told her that they could not provide one for the dates she requested.

“I was a bit scared because I did not know how to bathe, feed or just take care of the baby when she comes,” said Huang.

“The agencies told me that they had a limited supply and with border restrictions, they needed to make arrangements earlier to ensure the nanny’s work permit and quarantine can all be finalised,” she added.

Huang told CNA that she preferred to hire Malaysian nannies because of the relatively cheaper price for one who would stay-in with her family, and their rich experience.

She is one of the many parents based in Singapore who are keen on hiring Malaysian confinement nannies to cope with the initial challenges when welcoming a newborn.

The nannies typically care for the newborns while the mothers recover from giving birth. When the parents are ready, the confinement nannies would then teach and equip them with basic skills necessary for parenthood.

Tey May Leng, a confinement nanny, has not been able to work in Singapore since March 2020. PHOTO: CNA

However, these arrangements were halted in March when Malaysia implemented the movement control order and Singapore subsequently entered the “circuit breaker” period, blocking non-essential travel between both countries.

Now that border restrictions have been eased, workers have been allowed to travel between both countries via the Periodic Commuting Arrangement or Reciprocal Green Lane schemes.

Although the confinement nanny industry has not been classified under either scheme, they are still allowed to enter Singapore to work by obtaining a work pass from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) since June 17.

Based on MOM requirements, confinement nannies from Malaysia who arrive before September 1 are required to seek approval for a work pass, take a COVID-19 swab test and serve a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) upon arrival before they can work.

However, for confinement nannies entering Singapore from Malaysia after September 1, they would only need to serve a seven-day SHN upon arrival.

Thankfully for Huang, after she gave birth to her daughter on August 10, her husband’s aunt volunteered to live with the family for two weeks to take care of the baby while she recovered.

“I’m grateful to her. I wished I did not have to trouble her. But I still felt I needed a nanny to stay with us for a longer period so I tried to contact the agencies again,” said Huang.

She eventually managed to hire one from an agency and she said she has been “very satisfied” by the service from the confinement nanny assigned to her.

“It’s better late than never but I wished I had gotten one (assigned) earlier,” she said.

Confinement nanny agencies CNA spoke to said there is indeed a nanny shortage, due to the COVID-19 restrictions in both countries.

While they grapple to match the demand from Singapore families, new parents have to be prepared to fork out more to help cover the SHN and swab test costs.

The Malaysian nannies, meanwhile, also find their income dipping as compulsory quarantine reduces the number of days they can work in Singapore.

PEM Confinement Nanny Agency’s (PEM) Senior Business Manager Mishell Lee shared that demand for confinement nannies has spiked recently because of the travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world. Many of these families initially wanted to rely on their parents who are based overseas or were going to employ a domestic helper to help them. However, with travel restrictions, many have turned to confinement nanny agencies.

Lee told CNA that the company is currently able to activate only 200 out of its total manpower of around 400 nannies, at any one time. This is because of the slower rate of approval for their work permits and the need to serve SHN for each trip.

She said that PEM has been unable to match the “high demand” as not all of its nannies are able to be activated at short notice.

“Since the beginning of movement control order (MCO) and circuit breaker, PEM has been receiving a high number of requests from clients to extend the service of their confinement nannies, but we are unable to fulfil (these requests) due to the lack of manpower and this is still going on until today,” she said.

She also pointed out that families would typically hire nannies for 28 days, but for some, especially first-time parents, this is not sufficient.

“Many of the mothers who signed up with us… have not yet fully recovered from delivery and being left alone will make it harder for them to take care of their newborn,” said Lee.

A new parent who wanted to be known only as Long is facing the exact predicament.

She had no issues getting a nanny when she gave birth, but she is currently having problems trying to extend her nanny’s contract for another 28 days.

Long told CNA that she had initially hoped that her parents, who are based in China, would be able to travel to Singapore to help her after she gave birth. However, they were unable to travel due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and she then hired a Malaysian nanny from PEM, who came to stay with them on the day she gave birth, on August 8.

Long said she has been very impressed with the service provided by the nanny and has asked PEM if she could extend the service of her nanny for another 28 days, but the agency has so far been unable to confirm if they are able to accede to this request.

“Currently, I have no other options. We want a simple extension for 28 days and it will help us a lot. I would have recovered more and would be better able to take care of the baby,” she said.

Due to MOM requirements, there will be added costs for the nanny’s trip as they will be required to stay in a dedicated SHN facility and take the COVID-19 test.

Malaysia, too, requires people arriving from overseas to quarantine at designated facilities for 14 days. Citizens are required to fork out MYR2,100 (SGD690) of partial costs, while foreigners have to pay the full MYR4,700.

The added financial costs could then be passed on to the families, nannies or the agencies, or could be shared between all three parties.

Luckily for parents like Long, PEM has said it will bear all costs incurred for their nannies, including serving the SHN, COVID-19 swab test, as well as other necessities like face masks, which add up to around SGD1,700 per trip.

However, other families were not as lucky.

Jason Teo, who hired his Malaysian nanny in mid August, told CNA that the agency he hired from had agreed to share the added financial costs with their clients, and he had to pay an additional SGD700 on top of the SGD3,000 to hire the nanny for 28 days.

“I agreed because I think it’s not fair to expect agencies to absorb all the added costs. And I think it would even be worse to expect the nannies to pay for it,” said the 29-year-old engineer who welcomed his first child on August 14.

The pandemic and the COVID-19 measures have also affected the livelihood of the Malaysian confinement nannies.

The total 28 days of quarantine they are subject to when entering Singapore and returning home to Malaysia means they lose the opportunity to work for close to a month, and are away from their loved ones for a longer period for each assignment.

Tey May Leng, 51, who is employed with PEM, told CNA that she struggled to pay the university fees for her two children over the last three months when she could not leave Malaysia to work in Singapore during the MCO period.

“As I have not been working since March, I have lost around MYR16,000 of income in total. My children’s university fees are around MYR5,000 a month so it has been difficult,” she said.

Therefore, Tey is grateful that her work permit has been approved and she can now resume work in Singapore – her first assignment in about six months.

She has been assigned to a family and she made the long trip from her hometown in Gurun, Kedah in the northern part of Malaysia to Singapore on August 25, and is currently serving her SHN at a hotel.

“I will serve fewer customers for each trip due to the COVID-19 quarantine duration, but I can no longer afford to be choosy,” she added.