SINGAPORE — Foreign domestic workers flock to tiny city-state in search of better paid jobs to support their families. But in the confines of private homes many are facing daily abuse at the hands of their employers.
Singapore has for years relied on low-skilled domestic workers to support its 5.4 million population. Some 220,000 women — many from the Philippines and Indonesia — call Singapore their home. They are known as the “silent army,” keeping households in order — cooking, cleaning and caring for children and the elderly.
Lured by salaries that are five times what they can make at home — on average about $365 per month — domestic workers leave their families behind to go in search of a better life, but for some, what they find is a brutal reality.
The migrant charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) recently rescued a domestic worker who had worked for a family in Singapore without a single day off in two years and just $1,460 in pay. She was living on bread for breakfast and lunch and leftovers for dinner. Neighbors said she had been quietly begging them for food.
Cases like this are common in Singapore.
The Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME) runs a shelter for domestic workers escaping abusive employers. Last year they helped 750 domestic workers and reported 97 cases of physical abuse, 19 cases of sexual harassment, and 333 cases of verbal/psychological abuse.
“We have about 60 domestic workers staying with us now and about a third of them have been physically or sexually abused,” says Jolovan Wham, executive director of HOME. “It is a problem that is more serious than we think because a lot of physical abuse cases don’t make it to the courts … and it is difficult to gather evidence for it.”
For that reason conviction rates are very low in Singapore as many cases of abuse remain hidden and unreported in the privacy of a home.
“Employers who want to isolate their workers from the outside world can do so quite successfully here,” said John Gee, a former TWC2 president. “A large proportion are confined and isolated so that they can't seek help, and therefore their plight goes unrecognized.”
Treated like slaves
Adi, a domestic worker from Punjab in India, is one of the women who decided to fight back. She called the police on her employer last month after she was repeatedly beaten with a belt.
“I was preparing some food for my boss’ son and there was a lot of water in the dish … when she saw that, she got angry and started swearing at me,” she said, in an interview at HOME’s shelter. “She picked up a belt and started whipping me around my legs. It happened once but she tried many times before.”
When the police arrived her employer denied hitting her and Adi was taken to HOME, without a job and facing the prospect of a return flight home to India.
“Some employers here just treat the girls as slaves,” said one caseworker, who deals with runaway domestic workers. “Their attitude is that they have paid for these girls, so they’d better do what they ask them to do. If they have no day off and no phone, they are literally trapped in the house.”
The caseworker said the worst case she had seen in Singapore involved a young domestic worker from Myanmar, who was sexually abused over a period of seven months.
“If she wanted to call her family back home, she was only allowed to after her employer felt her breasts. She couldn’t speak English, her phone was confiscated and she was trapped in the house while her employer’s wife was at work and his kids were at school,” she said.
The case was resolved but there were no convictions. “I don’t think there are any convictions here,” the caseworker said. “Sometimes employers are given a stern warning [by police] and are let off because it is their first time, but it depends on the seriousness of the case.”
Curfews and salary deductions
A two-year survey by HOME of 670 domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar reveals the excessive control Singapore’s employers have over their hires.
It found that almost 70 percent of women had their passports and personal documents confiscated on arrival with more than 10 percent forced to sleep in kitchens, storage cupboards or the “bomb shelter” — the windowless bunkers fitted into Singapore’s high rise flats specifically for domestic workers.
According to the survey, domestic workers face excessive restrictions on communication and mobility with many not allowed to make private phone calls. Some are even locked in the house or a room by their employers.
Mariel, a domestic worker from the Philippines, was told by her employer that she would lose money every time she made a mistake.
“I came here to earn money for my family back at home, but from the beginning my employer said he would punish my mistakes by deducting money from my salary,” she said.
“I forgot to turn off the switch on the cooker — he took $20 for that. Another time he told me he was taking $100 out of my pay because I didn’t heat up his son’s food properly.”
She confronted him, but when it continued she decided her only option was to run away.
Hong Kong: a watershed
The case of the Indonesian domestic worker, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose eight-month ordeal at the hands of her Hong Kong employer led to a landmark six-year prison sentence last month, raised the profile of serious abuse cases across Asia.
The ILO says abuse is common among the more than 21 million Asian women and girls who leave home to become domestic workers. But as in the case of Sulistyaningsih, more women — and their home nations — are beginning to fight back.
Regionally, sender countries like the Philippines and Indonesia have tightened up their policies in response to repeated abuse in host countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. Both countries more vocally advocate on behalf of the women who migrate for domestic work, putting more pressure on countries like Singapore to better improve legal and social security protection for domestic work.
Although there are limits to the influence one country can have on a sovereign state. At the moment, domestic workers are not covered under the Employment Act in Singapore, which means they don’t have basic labor rights such as an 8-hour workday, overtime and public holidays. A 2011 flagship policy for a mandatory weekly day off has now ended up with employers paying domestic workers to keep working.
“There is a clause [in the day off policy] that says that employers and workers can agree that the worker should give up days off in return for payment,” Gee says. “This is supposed to be something that a worker is free to accept or refuse, but in practice, it is difficult for a worker to say ‘No.’”
Root and branch reform
The ILO also points to Singapore’s failure to sign the UN Domestic Workers Convention, which grants labor and social rights to the 53 million domestic workers around the world.
It says that there needs to be closer monitoring of Singapore workplaces and recruitment agencies and prosecuting when crimes are committed.
“Singapore has reaped huge economic benefits from the thousands of domestic workers who are there, and the government needs to recognize this by improving legal and social security protection for domestic workers,” said Anna Olsen, technical officer for the ILO, Asia and the Pacific.
Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that domestic workers are covered sufficiently under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and that complaints are now down to “less than 1 percent” of the domestic worker population, while abusive employers are getting fined or issued with 12-month prison terms.
HOME has counted only four convictions in the last three years from cases of abuse that it has handled. It says that the ministry deals with many convictions confidentially.
“Under the Penal Code, abusers of domestic workers also face higher penalties of up to 1.5 times the punishment they would have been liable for the same offence,” a ministry spokesman said.
In the absence of reform, campaigners say they are hopeful that continued pressure from sender regions — and more awareness through high profile cases such as Sulistyaningsih in Hong Kong — will eventually nudge Singapore’s policymakers in the right direction.
“I suspect the smarter minds in the [Singapore] government realize that the present domestic worker regime is unsustainable in the long run, but no-one's prepared to break cover and make the unpopular case for root and branch reform,” Gee said.
Until that happens, the women who can’t escape from abusive employers will have no choice but to go on suffering quietly.