By Terry Xu
More than 70 domestic workers and some employment agencies turned up for a forum titled "Workers Not Slaves" last Sunday to discuss matters that concern foreign domestic workers (FDWs).
The forum was organised by HOME, a local Non-Government Organisation, which deals with migrant worker issues in Singapore. Indonesian, Filipinos and Burmese FDWs were invited for the event, which was also attended by representatives from embassies in Singapore and a representative from the Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) (AEAS).
The discussion was initiated following a recent news report by Al Jazeera which revealed that some employment agencies have been "displaying" domestic workers at shopping centres, and using inappropriate language to market the services of domestic workers.
The forums also highlighted that employment agency fees have increased, and some agencies are engaging in a "price war", with domestic workers bearing most of the costs.
Mr Sukmo Yuwono, counsellor at the Indonesia Embassy in Singapore, shared that as of September last year, the minimum wage of Indonesian domestic workers has increased from $450 to $500, which was a positive development for Indonesian FDWs.
However, he said that one of the difficulties faced by the Embassy is that the Singapore government does not involve the Embassy in the In Principle Approval (IPA) process, which allows them to be informed of Indonesians who enter Singapore as FDWs.
This results in the Embassy and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) having different databases of Indonesian FDWs in Singapore.
Ms Htwe Hteik Tin Lwin, first secretary of the consular section at the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore, shared that since the relaxation of travel restriction to Myanmar, it has been much easier to obtain a passport and many have sought work in foreign countries.
Although there are many FDWs who registered with the Embassy, many have come to Singapore without declaration of what they are doing here. As a result, the Embassy is unable to ascertain how many FDWs from Myanmar are currently in Singapore.
She asked for understanding from the Burmese FDWs present in the forum while the new government tries to tweak the existing situation to better manage overseas workers.
Mr Vicente Cabe, labour attache for the Philippine Embassy in Singapore, also indicated that it is an onerous task to identify Filipinos who come to Singapore to seek work as FDWs, as Singapore is both work and tourism destination for Filipinos. As Philippines and Singapore are both members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), citizens need not apply for visas to travel between the two countries.
Much was also said about the news report by Al Jazeera that highlighted "displaying" of FDWs at employment agencies. A volunteer at HOME, who have been working as an FDW in Singapore since 2004 said that she experienced the same situation when she first arrived in Singapore, although the situation in Singapore has improved since.
Nevertheless, she noted agencies that cater to the local populace still tend to continue the practice of "advertising" FDWs to potential employers.
She said that ultimately, FDWs are fearful of speaking up on work related issues because they are always being threatened with dismissal and repatriation.
She asked to remain anonymous as she is also worried about the consequences if her employer, the employment agency or the government is unhappy with what she said.
Mrs K Jeyaprema, president of AEAS, noted that the "advertising" issue has improved since the Al Jazeera report, with MOM calling for talks with employment agencies to ensure such practices are not used again. There are currently regulations in place to enforce this.
However, Ms Shelley Thio from local NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) noted that what was said in policies and regulations are very different from what is happening on the ground. Her comment was met with applause from the audience.
A few other FDWs raised the issue of rest days for FDWs. One mentioned that she was asked to observe a curfew and was constantly hounded by her employer on when she is coming back hours before the curfew was up.
She asked Mrs Jeyaprema if employers can be compelled to observe the day off requirement, so that FDWs can have their rest and personal time. Mrs Keyaprema replied that employers and FDWs have to come to an agreement on the employment terms, and if there is any dispute, to approach the employment agency or their Embassy.
However, many FDWs complained that employment agencies here tend to side with the employers rather than the FDWs, despite the fact that they are the ones paying more to the agencies.
Mrs Jeyaprema was also besieged with questions from the FDWs about the errant practices of some agencies in Singapore and was constantly asked what could be done about the situation.
Mrs Jeyaprema maintained that FDWs coming into Singapore must use accredited employment agencies, which would allow the relevant agencies and Embassies to help resolve the issue.
She added that FDWs needed to be part of the solution to combat non-compliance by employment agencies such as the payment of agency fees. For instance, while no Filipino FDW was supposed to pay agency fees for job placement, job seekers are still doing so to secure a job.
HOME had invited MOM to send a representative to the discussion, but the Ministry replied that it's officers were not available to attend. Concerns about better enforcement of regulations and stiffer penalties for errant agencies were not addressed as MOM was not represented.