By B. Lewis

‘My employer only gave me instant noodles three meals a day. Sometimes, she throws some rice in the noodles or gave me some bread when I told her the food was not enough. I had no vegetables, meat or fruit,’ Louise (not her real name) said when she was hospitialised last year for severe weight loss.

In one year, she lost 20 kg and had stopped menstruating.

Such accounts are not new. Last year, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) saw a 20% increase in the number of residents in its shelter who complained of nutritional neglect by their employers.

As many as 8 in 10 complained that inadequate food was a problem for them. Some domestic workers were not even provided food at all and had to buy them on their own. Others complained that their employers scolded them for eating too much, and this made them fearful of taking more during meals to sustain them throughout the day as they did their chores.

HOME Survey on Nutritional Intake of Foreign Domestic Workers: Findings

HOME conducted a survey among 43 women living in our shelter to determine the extent of nutritional neglect among foreign domestic workers who came to the organisation for assistance, the majority being from the Philippines and Myanmar.

respondents by country

The survey found that 40% of the women were always or often hungry while living with their employer. Only less than one out of every tenth participant (9%) were never or rarely hungry. Additionally, the vast majority (79%) reported  weight lost whilst working in Singapore.

12% did not have three meals a day and fewer than half of the respondents (44%) were allowed to help themselves to food in the fridge or cupboard in their last employer’s house.

Meals were reportedly mostly eaten at reasonable times with the majority eating breakfast between 6am and 9am, lunch between 12pm and 2pm and dinner between 7pm and 10pm.

However two respondents ate breakfast at 5am and two had dinner at 11pm or later.

Most respondents (72%) had their meals in the kitchen. Whilst 12% ate at the family table, another 12% ate on the floor of the kitchen or their room.

Only 30% of respondents were given food that they liked and 26% did not eat freshly cooked food. Just under half (44%) were allowed to help themselves to food from the fridge or cupboards.

What they eat?

The majority (74%) of respondents ate the same food as their employer. Respondents were also asked about the type of food they were given and how often they ate rice, bread, noodles, vegetables, meat or tofu, fruit and eggs.

We found that 49% ate 14-20 servings a week (approximately 2 servings per day) and 30% ate only 7-13 servings per week, approximating to 1 portion a day of carbohydrates.

The majority (70%) ate vegetables everyday although 7% said they never ate vegetables. 44% ate meat or tofu everyday, but 14% also never had meat or tofu. Eggs were also commonly eaten, with 12% having them every day and 60% having them between once and three times a week.

Fruit, however, was far less common in their diets, with nearly half (49%) saying that they ate no fruit in a typical week.

The following charts show the breakdown of the foods eaten (click to enlarge):

no of times eaten

Response to nutritional neglect

Regulations about the provision of food are vaguely worded in Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Act. Employers are only legally obliged to provide adequate food and this is not clearly defined.

Domestic workers are often afraid of asking for more food for fear of angering their employers.

Homekeeper’s managing director Carene Chin was quoted in The Straits Times that domestic workers should be “smart enough” to ask for an extra helping of food. “If you’re scared and don’t dare to ask, you should not complain that your employer is not kind enough,” she said, adding that maids can always stock up on extra food on their days off.

“If you’re scared and don’t dare to ask, you should not complain that your employer is not kind enough,” she said, adding that maids can always stock up on extra food on their days off.

Such views ignore the fact that domestic workers do not have much bargaining power and are entirely dependent on the employer, especially during the first six to 8 months of their employment when they do not receive any salary as they are still paying off their recruitment debts.

In statement released to the media last year, the Ministry of Manpower said:

MOM takes any form of ill-treatment of FDWs seriously, and will look into all suspected offences. Where substantiated, the FDW can look for an alternative employer. Employers who fail to provide FDWs with adequate food may be fined up to $10,000 and/or jailed up to 12 months…

In the overwhelming majority of these complaints, MOM found that there was no deliberate withholding of food. Usually, the FDWs were unaccustomed to taking certain types of food or the smaller food portions provided, but had not told their employers. These cases were amicably resolved following clarifications between the FDWs and their employers.

Difficult to file complaints

In HOME’s experience, domestic workers often find it difficult to file complaints about inadequate food because MOM’s demand that the worker prove she has not been adequately fed is difficult to do.

It is easy for employers to deny any wrongdoing. Given the uncertainty of MOM’s response to this issue, many domestic workers choose not to complain or they risk losing their jobs after.

Even in instances where there is evidence that a worker has lost a significant amount of weight, the Ministry may not accept such complaints as legitimate.

We have observed that complaints about inadequate food are only taken seriously when a worker has to be hospitalised or a when a doctor certifies she has suffered from malnutrition.

But do migrant workers have to be starved to the brink of severe deprivation in order for their complaints to be taken seriously?

Little control over what or how much they can eat

Domestic workers who come to the HOME shelter have left their employers for reasons ranging from non-payment of salary, illegal deployment to psychological or physical abuse. What is worrying are the numbers who received insufficient food and went hungry, and the large proportion who have lost weight during their time in Singapore.

Whilst many ate the same food as the families they lived with and had a broadly healthy range of carbohydrates, protein and vegetables, the finding that 30% only received one portion of rice, bread or noodles a day suggests that many employers did not provide enough carbohydrates for women engaged in long hours of physical labour.

Since FDWs work and live in their employers’ homes, they have no control over what, or how much, they eat. Many get served in measured portions, where the employer decides on the quality and the amount. But not all employers realise that physical domestic work burns two to three times as many calories as a desk job.

Regulatory challenges

Ministry of Manpower’s ‘Your Guide to Employing a Foreign Domestic worker’, defines guidelines on the employers’ responsibilities when it comes to medical costs, accommodation, rest days, and safety.

Though, no information is provided on how to provide suitable and sufficient food, aside from the fact that the employer is responsible to bear the cost. The Employer’s Orientation Programme (EOP) includes a section on food, but this course is only required for first time employers and the information within it is not available once the orientation has been completed.

Sufficient nutritional attention prevents deficiencies in nutrition and psychological (e.g. mental health) and physical (e.g. iodine or iron deficiency, death) consequences of malnutrition.

MOM needs to raise awareness amongst all employers regarding the quantity, quality and cultural and religious appropriateness of food for domestic workers.

If they are not allowed to control what, and how much, they eat, and if employers struggle to understand their employees’ nutritional needs, then MOM needs to offer clear and specific guidelines on this matter, and be more proactive in investigating employers who neglect the dietary health of their domestic workers.

Louise regained some weight after staying at HOME’s shelter, and has since found a new employer. There is no word from MOM if her previous employer was prosecuted for not providing adequate food.

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