Ensuring Decent Work for Domestic Workers in Singapore

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Despite Singapore’s meteoric rise into a developed state, it has failed to guarantee equality for domestic workers.

There are approximately 215,000 migrant domestic workers from Southeast Asia and South Asia in Singapore. These women who cook, clean and take on caregiver roles are among the least protected workers in this affluent city-state. Reports of physical and sexual abuse are frequently heard of, and activists have long criticized the Singapore government for not providing migrant workers with adequate protections.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, a Singapore-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), sees an average of 500 women every year who flee their employer’s homes to seek refuge at its shelter. Complaints include unpaid and delayed wages, excessively long work hours, lack of rest and unsafe work conditions. Threats, deception and coercion have also been reported. When such abuses happen to workers who are expected to work round the clock, it amounts to trafficking and forced labor.

Many domestic workers arrive already indebted to a recruitment agency for their jobs. Even though Singapore’s Employment Agencies Act only allows recruiters to charge no more than two months of placement fees, they continue to collect six to eight months’ worth of salaries from these women, who earn an average of $300 a month. Wage discrimination by nationality is widespread: Workers from the Philippines are often paid the most and those from South Asia the least.

The kafala, or sponsorship system, as it is known in the Middle East, is also a main feature of Singapore’s labor migration regime. The women are only allowed to switch employers with the permission of their “sponsor.” This often makes it difficult for complaints and reports against abusive employers to be made, as they fear losing their jobs and not being able to repay their debts.

After years of campaigning by NGO activists, the Singapore government consented to legislating a weekly day off for migrant domestic workers. However, resistance to granting rest days remains strong. In a survey conducted by Singapore’s local English daily, only 37% of domestic workers were granted weekly rest days. In order to placate employer concerns, the Singapore government granted concessions to employers we would usually not accept for workers in other occupations. For example, the duration of the day off is not 24 hours but negotiable between the worker and her employer; and the employer may also pay her compensation in lieu of taking a day off.

The Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, a Singapore-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), sees an average of 500 women every year who flee their employer’s homes to seek refuge at its shelter. 

Recruitment agents also encourage employers not to grant weekly days off. They pander to discriminatory and paternalistic attitudes, such as workers slacking off, picking up “bad habits,” having boyfriends, bringing strangers into the house, “prostituting” themselves, moonlighting and getting pregnant. Employers frequently stress the importance of trust, as these women live in their homes and care for their loved ones. Domestic workers who have weekly days off are perceived as “vulnerable” to outside influences, and need to prove themselves trustworthy before such “risks” can be taken. This is exacerbated by current government policy, which mandates a forfeiture of 5,000 Singaporean dollars from the employer in the event the domestic worker is missing, becomes pregnant or is found to have worked illegally.

Not Yet Equal

For migrant domestic workers to gain full equality, international labor standards must apply to them. They need to be included in Singapore’s Employment Act, which grants all employees the right to overtime pay, caps on salary deductions, annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave and limits to working hours. Such important reforms, which would reduce exploitation and abuse, have been rejected by the government. The Singapore government has argued that it is not practical to regulate domestic work, particularly since many women live and work in their employer’s homes at the same time.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, representatives of the government’s Foreign Manpower Management Division said:

“The working hours, the nature of work for domestic workers is different from office work, which is 9-5. It depends on individual needs. Employers and employees must come to a mutual understanding … We hope to change through employer education. There is different bargaining power. The key is to encourage best practices, working closely with intermediaries.”

As Human Rights Watch rightly pointed out, although care of the elderly and children may be a 24-hour job, migrant domestic workers should not be expected to work round the clock. Other professions with similar demands, such as nursing, arrange for shift work that ensures workers receive regular periods of rest. Employers must find ways to manage their own time and alternatives like child care to ensure reasonable working hours for domestic workers.

Providing Options to Live Out

One of the key problems impeding the effective regulation of domestic work in Singapore is the government’s requirement that migrant domestic workers live together with their employers. Not only does this arrangement leave the worker vulnerable to exploitation, employers themselves will find it more challenging to manage the relationship with their workers. Domestic workers and activists in Hong Kong have started campaigning for this and so should Singapore.

The political will to improve social welfare policies and spend more on social services will remain weak, as long as there remains an underclass of women who are cheap and easy to exploit.

The live-in arrangement places employers and domestic workers in such close physical and psychological proximity of each other that it undermines what should actually be a formal employment arrangement between both parties. Transgressions committed at work are no longer just “work-related” because it takes place in the home, and it becomes more difficult to maintain an appropriate distance from it. At its worst, the relationship that is formed in a live-in arrangement may degenerate into one based on gratuitousness and emotional manipulation. When employers speak of workers who have “betrayed” them or eroded their “trust,” it is partly the live-in arrangement in which such relationships are formed which allow these feelings to develop.

However, when domestic workers live out, the boundaries become clearer and it is easier to keep a professional and emotional distance from any work-related conflicts. The domestic worker would also not be exploited and subjected to excessive working hours, if a clear boundary is marked between her personal and work time and she is able to clock in and clock out of her employer’s home. Living out would also ensure adequate conditions for the workers, who often find themselves sleeping in very small rooms, or with the charges that they are taking care of, or anywhere in the home where there is space for her to rest. There is hardly any privacy for the domestic worker in such circumstances.

Employers need not be required to supervise their workers the whole day. What the worker does outside of work would be her responsibility alone and the employer would not be unfairly burdened with supervising and controlling her. Moreover, the Singapore government is already investing in resources to house foreign workers by constructing dormitories. This option should also be extended to migrant domestic workers. Efforts should be made to invest in resources to build the capacities of employment agents, employers and workers to manage their relationships with each other better. At the moment, such initiatives are severely limited.

High Demand for Domestic Workers

Employers in Singapore often complain about the difficulties they have juggling the demands of work and family. Giving rights to domestic workers would somehow upset the balance and throw everything into disarray. But the pressures that employers face are also a result of inadequate government policies that have failed to provide adequately for families who are struggling to cope with the high cost of living, caring for their loved ones, and a work culture which demands that we sacrifice our personal relationships for the sake of economic productivity.

The high demand for domestic workers in Singapore is caused in part by the absence of adequate and affordable social support services for the young and elderly, which is actually the duty of the government to provide. But domestic work should not be a substitute for the provision of institutional care and formal social support services. There is a need for greater government investment in this area, so families can make informed choices about whether to hire domestic help. However, the political will to improve social welfare policies and spend more on social services will remain weak, as long as there remains an underclass of women who are cheap and easy to exploit.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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