Dear Be Prepared,
Frustrated's problem is two-fold. First of all, she trusted a complete
stranger she has never met just because she happens to be another expat.
They have nothing in common and one expat owes no loyalty to another expat
she has never met before and may never meet in future.
Furthermore, the first expat may have been motivated by selfish consideration more than altruism towards her maid. Let's look at some of the ways an employer can benefit from seeing her maid placed.
Whatever the reason may be for the employer giving her incompetent and inept foreign maid a good reference, it is becoming increasingly clear that the peculiarity of the work permit system for foreign maids is causing employers to be more generous in their remarks about their maid's "skills". Perhaps Singapore is the only country where employers do not close ranks in the face of "horror" maids, maids who star in horror stories.
To avoid falling into the same trap as Frustrated, do not rely on references except to confirm your own feelings after interviewing the candidates. If you read the testimonial first, you should reserve judgment. Read between the lines and be critical. There would often be some clues. If a working couple with school-age children tell you they do not need their maid anymore, they are implying that their children are independent. This is nonsensical and perhaps the real reason is that the maid is not up to the job and they are replacing her.
Some employers are more honest and one may actually say that her maid is good at cooking, but that her three boisterous children are too much for her. She may even go one step further and say that she will be more successful working for a family with perhaps only one child or two less lively children.
An expatriate couple without children in Singapore may not need a maid, but they will find one an asset. If an employer says she does not need a maid because the children are not living with her, does she mean that she hired her maid while her children were living with her in Singapore and now six months later the children have gone home and so she does not require her maid's services anymore? And, of coure, you would think it odd if an expat, or a local, took three months to realise that she could not afford a maid!
Ask the same questions at different times or phrase them differently. If the answers are always consistent, they are probably reliable. If the same questions phrased differently or asked at different times elicit different answers it can mean one of two things: The maid does not understand or she is less than candid. And of course, you will know the employer is quite accurate in the reference when the maid corroborates what she writes.
Some maids are very good at English and can easily make themselves
understood. However, there may be "blind spots" when try as you would you
cannot understand her. Be wary. Is she withholding information? Do not give
a hint as to the answers you want to hear. Old timers with umpteen years'
experience and a glib tongue will tailor their answers to your questions. If
you disapprove of an answer, do not show it. If you find an answer
incredible give no hint of what you think. Do not even let the candidate
know why you do not wish to employ her. She will teach her friends how to
get around you. Their grapevine is incredibly efficient and very soon every
maid in need of a job will know what kind of answers you (and other
prospective employers) want to hear.