HOME mental health survey: Burmese domestic workers under duress

Photo courtesy of Tom White, www.tomwhitephotography.com


“I could handle it all up until I was accused of [seducing my employer’s husband]. All I did was try to help.”

By Maria Fraser

Myanmar domestic worker, Moe, 24, lasted a grand total of two weeks in her employment in Singapore. Things went wrong quickly when her employer punched her in the face for stepping on her foot and hit her with a lotion bottle for asking too many questions.

Under duress, Moe ran away from her employer. Her agency filed a police report on her behalf but refused to send her home.

“We have seen a big jump in the number of domestic workers from Myanmar seeking help from us. In 2014, we handled 127 cases and this year we have 82 cases to date,” said Valli Palli, Director of Casework at the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), a non-governmental organization dedicated to serving the needs of the migrant working community in Singapore.

HOME’s latest report, Home sweet home? Work, life and well-being of foreign domestic workers in Singapore indicates that Myanmar Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) living and working in Singapore are susceptible to a wide range of mental health issues. The findings on the home life, employment conditions and overall well-being of FDWs in Singapore highlight the exploitative conditions these women face.

Domestic workers experience the most social isolation: Only 40% have a weekly day off . (This despite the fact that in 2013 the Ministry of Manpower introduced a mandatory weekly rest day for FDWs.) Those from Myanmar are also less likely to seek external help when encountering an emotional problem.

58% of them are reported to have some communication problems with their employers, compared with 25% Indonesian respondents and 38% of the Filipinas. They experienced the highest rates of nutritional neglect and invasion of personal privacy.

They are paid less than the average monthly salary of S$515. Their median age is 28 years old, compared with Indonesians (32 years old) and Filipinas (36 years old). Some workers are as young as 16 when they arrive in Singapore..

Dr. Thein Than Win, a Myanmar medical doctor at HOME explains that young age and lack of language are definite detriments to FDWs from Myanmar who are less able to assert their rights and protect themselves.

Overall, FDWs in Singapore, regardless of nationalities, experience a number of mental health risk factors. Only 38% of FDWs claimed to be treated with dignity by their employers, 70% suffered from some degree of homesickness and 51% experienced verbal abuse at work, mostly in the form of nagging and scolding.

Between November 2013 and May 2014, HOME researchers conducted interviews with 670 foreign domestic workers – Indonesian (48%), Filipina (35%) and Myanmar (16%) – working in Singapore. The questionnaire, administered in English, Bahasa Indonesia and Burmese, assessed the respondents’ individual characteristics including their views on their living and working conditions and the prevalence of mental health conditions.

Mya, 38, a quiet and serious woman, recounts the difficulties she encountered working as an FDW in Singapore. She has worked for no less than seven different families in 6 years. Her first employment situation was her most difficult one. Under the terms of her employment agency contract, she had to repay the agency $300 of her meagre $350 monthly salary over seven months. And to add insult to injury, her employer withheld the remaining $50 balance.

Her employment conditions began to take their toll. Mya struggled to communicate in a language she didn’t understand, her outside communication was incredibly limited as she had no days off and no mobile phone and she was constantly being scolded and yelled at by her female employer. But the last straw came when the woman accused her of trying to seduce her disabled husband.

“I could handle it all up until I was accused of that. All I did was try to help,” explains an obviously traumatized Mya as tears stream down her face.

Mya and Moe are not alone in their experiences. In April 2013, the Straits Times published an article claiming that a rising number of Myanmar FDWs were running away from their Singaporean employers, many citing that they found the long hours without pay unbearable and that they were burdened by debt incurred from the maid employment agencies. Many of the women were underage, untrained and unable to speak English.

Last September, the Myanmar government temporarily barred its female citizens from working in Singapore due to concerns over mistreatment and abuse. However, it has not stopped women driven by poverty and joblessness to seek work in Singapore.

With the reportedly 30,000 to 40,000 Myanmar FDWs in Singapore growing in strength – increasing by a steady 50% over the last two years – more must be done to help these women cope with the stress of working and living here.

Whilst FDWs can take more proactive steps to seek help for mental health problems, such as reaching out to friends, family and non-profit organizations, employers, employment agency and the authorities have more decisive roles to play.

Employers and employment agencies need to treat the FDWs with dignity, respect and maintain open channels of communication. HOME strongly recommends weekly rest days and limited work hours and closer monitoring of the well-being of FDWs in their first six months of employment.

FDWs need to be included in the Singapore Employment Act to be granted rights such as limits to working hours, rest periods, annual leave, sick leave, public holidays and over-time pay. Current regulations such as the two-month salary cap as provided for in the Employment Agencies Act have to be strictly enforced. Excessive agency fees leave FDWs vulnerable to abuse in the salary deduction period.

Bilateral and multilateral cooperation with source countries should be promoted to ensure more effective protection of FDWs from the deceptive, coercive and abusive behaviors of employment agents and employers. They have lesser legal protections from their home country than their Filipina and Indonesian counterparts who generally have a better understanding of their rights.

These greater legal protections would go a long way to shielding Myanmar domestic workers and all other FDWs from the conditions which negatively impact their mental health.

“We believe our findings are just the tip of the iceberg”, says Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of HOME, “They are based on interviews with workers whom we could get access to. What about those who are not allowed out at all? “We cannot afford to ignore the mental well-being of FDWs without undermining their health and the interests of employers and their families.”

This article was first published on HOME’s website.