AT 5am, without any alarm clock going off, a dozen Cambodian maids wake up with near-military precision.
Over the next hour, the women sweep, wash and scrub spotless their two-storey training centre in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
They all want to be maids in Singapore, eager to earn enough to supplement their families' meagre income.
A handful arrived in Singapore homes last week, and about 400 are expected by the end of the year.
Cambodian maids are being allowed into Singapore for the first time, under a Manpower Ministry pilot scheme.
The authorities will monitor how well they adapt to life here and if all goes well, Cambodia will be added to the list of approved sources for maids, joining countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar.
Maid agencies in Singapore said demand for Cambodians has been heating up.
About 40 employers have placed deposits of about S$500 (RM1,264) each to secure a worker, said Nation Employment's managing director Gary Chin.
"Employers are interested in Cambodian maids because many have experience working in Malaysia," he said.
The women are eager to escape poverty at home. Jobs for women in Cambodia are limited mostly to working in factories or as maids, and both jobs pay barely US$120 (RM379) a month. As maids in Singapore, they can expect at least S$450 (RM1,137) a month.
The jobs come at a cost though. The women pay S$2,400 (RM6,069) in placement fees to recruitment agents and expect to clear the debt in instalments over six months.
The women hope that what they earn in Singapore will allow them to buy farmland, renovate village homes and put their younger siblings through school.
Among those heading to Singapore is Mork Banou, 23.
The eldest of five children, she went to Malaysia to work as a maid in 2009, speaking almost no English.
Determined to improve, she studied by herself every night, memorising and reading English words aloud. Within three months, she was getting by in English.
Many of the women said they managed to save more than S$10,000 (RM25,287) after their stints in Malaysia.
Thol Sreymach, 26, said she saved $15,000 (RM37,391) after working there for four years and it went towards the school fees and living expenses of her four younger sisters. She hopes to save even more after she arrives in Singapore later this month.
But labour activists in Cambodia worry that the women will have problems adjusting to life in Singapore and that Singapore employers will be frustrated by the women's weak command of English.
"The life in Singapore is so different from village life. The domestic workers will face difficulties in adapting," said activist Mom Sokchar.
For now, women like Banou are looking forward to their new lives in Singapore.
"Working in Singapore will help my family get a better life," she said. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network
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