By Sha Najak & Roderick Chia
As of mid-2010, Singapore is home to about 196,000 female migrant domestic workers. The transnational movement between their home countries and Singapore, reports of “maid” abuse, conflict and problematic working environments have became important areas of research, particularly regarding their safety. This article looks at the single, main cause of insecurity, gleaned from research and first-hand interviews with foreign domestic workers (FDWs): intermediaries such as agents and training centres. The process of coming to Singapore is complicated and difficult. Sometimes training experiences are strict and immigration procedures may seem “dodgy”. All these processes are almost always handled by agents who work between employers and employees. Here is a brief description on the migration processes of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers as told to us by our interviewees, most of whom have been working as FDWs for some time.
For Indonesians, the first step is obtaining help from a “sponsor”, who then introduces the domestic worker to a “Training Centre”. Alternatively she could approach a job agent who will also bring her to such a centre, or she may approach a centre directly. Training at these centres are compulsory for anyone who wants to work abroad as a domestic worker. After undergoing one to three months of live-in training, they are required to sign a contract with the centre that makes her family liable for costs if she leaves without completing her training. They then wait for telephone or Skype interviews with prospective employers to get job placements. Their papers would be processed by different parties, depending on who the women approach first.
When they get their jobs, there is a monthly wage deduction. Our interviewees told us that in their day, this would last only four to five months, or six to seven months at the longest. Today, deductions would go on for eight to nine months, often for job placements, registration fees, air tickets, and medical check-ups. These wage deductions often leave them with only $10-$30 per month. The official wage range of most Indonesian domestic workers is $250-$300 per month.
Our Filipina interviewees had different experiences. For example, through recruitment agencies, in the past they could not view their own work contracts before they start working, but they now can. Women who became domestic helpers for the first time were not able to choose their employers. However, after two years of working and having gained experience, they would be able to choose whom they work for. Many had heard about the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration procedures but – with only one exception – were not told to sign it.
For this group, their recruitment process included: approaching an agent, getting medical check-ups, obtaining interviews with employers and a job placement, getting through Philippine immigration, sometimes getting training, living at the agents’ abode in Singapore, and signing the contracts – which are usually for two years. They are then brought to meet their employers, and issued work permits. This sequence could change, depending on the method of recruitment and their agencies. Sometimes the women would find their employers through friends or relatives; and either the employers or agents were hired to handle their papers for them. Most of the interviewees knew of the wage deductions only when they arrived in Singapore. On top of agents’ placement fees that they has already paid, there is a six-months wage deduction of $200-300 per month, often leaving them only $20-50 a month. The deductions are to pay for accommodation at agents’ abode, medical check-ups, clearance at Philippine immigration (or paying “escort fees”), drafting and signing of contracts, and administration fees for work permits.
In general, all of our interviewees did not, and still do not, feel comfortable with agents. This is mainly because they felt exploited by them. This is particularly so for the Filipinas regarding not being informed of the six-months deductions (which they pay on top of their placement fees), and when some agents conduct transfer interviews in a dishonest and exploitative way. For the Indonesians, they were exploited in the strict training centres. They revealed that agents in Singapore were unkind – sometimes beating women and generally being rude to them. Our interviewees felt that agents were not helpful, and often discriminated against domestic workers.
The situation is usually not better with training centres for the Indonesians. Before they go abroad to work, inexperienced workers will be transferred to a training centre in Jakarta; this means everyone has gone through training at least once prior to their work as FDWs. The women have to sign a contract that make their families pay a sum of money – including their expenses at the training centre – should they run away, or if the centre cancels their training. Our interviewees told us that there were “good” and “bad” training centres.
At these centres, they were told that although they were Muslims, they would have to touch pork if they work for a Chinese (and usually non-Muslim) family. They were also told to obey what their employers say. For example, our interviewee “K” had this to say,
In the training centre they tell us that if you have a Chinese family, you have to touch pork. Whether you eat or not depends on you. But you have to follow the Chinese employer should they eat pork. They didn’t tell you that you have right to ask for something, that you have to know your own right there as a person. No. They never tell us about that. They only tell us that you have to follow the rule, you have to obey, and you have to do whatever your boss tells you. That was what they say at the training centre.
Thus most of the women listened to the trainers at the centres, obeying them without question. Some centres took trainees’ valuables under the pretext of safekeeping; the trainees could do nothing about it. This happened to “K”.
I even lost my papers in the first training centre in Jakarta. They told me that they will return my marriage certificate but they don’t return to me….they ask [for] the original… and if [I] really, really want the paper back, I have to give them some amount of money.
When asked why she gave her original marriage certificate to them, the women discussed how they felt powerless at that time as they were young, immature, and afraid. They did not want to jeopardize their chances of getting a job. When our interviewer pointed out that she could have given them a photocopy of her certificate, “K” said,
Ya, but that time we never think that we can do that, you know. So we just listen to whatever they say. Because we feel that we need to get this job so we just listen to whatever they say. They say I need to give original, so I give original because they promise to return it back when the process is already done.
Most centres promised to teach skills that will be useful to their work abroad. One interviewee told us that she was not taught anything; instead she became a staff there. Another told us that she was taught English, cooking and sewing, and also had to do morning exercises. Their training schedules were strict, suggesting that their employers expected them to follow such schedules.Families were allowed to visit and trainees were allowed to call them on the telephone. This varied at different centres, with some stricter about visits and phone calls.
With what sounds like a tense environment at training centres, the women told us it was hard to bear with homesickness. Many regretted it and wanted to leave. However, the fees for cancelling their training were too high. Some women ran away from the centre, or took their own lives by jumping off buildings.
Our interviewees called these training centres, which they believed to be mostly owned and run by wealthy Chinese Indonesians, “illegal” or “private”. We asked if there are any government organizations that the women could complain to about their treatment and environment, but they explained that there was no point in complaining because corruption is rampant in Indonesia. That is also the reason why they go to centres that were “private” and not registered with the authorities. With corruption in the country, an authorized government training centre would cost more than a private one, as this conversation illustrates:
Interviewer: But is there no government agency you can complain to?
Everyone: No use.
A: We complain, they just “ya ya ya”, something like that. They just ignore. They just give the answer, “ya ya ya we will look at it’. But they give us the look, “Who are you anyway?” Something like that.
U: Actually they have one, but why we choosing not to go to the government? Because it’s complicated using the government [ones]. So it’s better to use the private.
A: Unless you have a lot of money.
From our interviewees’ descriptions, their experiences were not pleasant or enjoyable. With trainers teaching the women to learn to obey without question and negotiation, this disempowered them before they even started working. Furthermore, the women felt that there were no authority figures to whom they could turn to for help, and that if they wanted the job, they had no choice but to persevere till the end.
This article is the result of an independent study on migration channels in relation to actors, processes, and legislations. It is derived from a paper originally presented at a workshop hosted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, in November. The paper focused on how safe or unsafe the journeys are for migrant domestic workers who come to Singapore for employment. Interviews were carried out with about 12foreign domestic workers. The writers wish to thank their fellow researchers Tai Shuxia, Ong Xiao Yun, and Ted Tan, fellow researchers who co-wrote the original paper.