By Charan Bal
Migrant Domestic Worker (MDW) abuse in Singapore is back in the media spotlight. There were 26 cases being filed in the courts in 2014, up from 14 filed in 2012, and yet more high profile cases have surfaced this year. Explanations for the prevalence of MDW abuse in the mainstream and social media have focused on the issue of a “culture of unequal relationships” in Singapore.
Because Singapore society judges a person by how much they earn – as the argument goes, bosses perceive themselves to be superior to workers and take their latent frustrations out on them. As such cultural traits are deeply-rooted in our society, MDW abuse is, thus, “difficult to stamp out”.
However, whether or not such cultural traits are deeply ingrained in society, they do not explain the prevalence of these cases of abuse. The emphasis on changing employer attitudes towards MDWs so that they can be treated more kindly, can sometimes ignore the precise nature of paid domestic work, systems of recruitment and government regulations that make MDWs vulnerable to physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
Paid for work but not legally workers
Domestic work is essentially reproductive work and involves care-related work such as cooking, cleaning and raising children. Typically, this was unpaid work performed by women in the household. State-led industrial development from the late-1970s in Singapore saw a huge rise in women’s participation in the workforce. MDW programs were created to allow reproductive labor to be outsourced to women from impoverished countries as dual-income households grew.
While reproductive work had become paid work, the government has never legally recognized MDWs as workers. As a result, in reproductive labor there is no clear boundary between work and rest time even though these individuals are paid. There are no formal or clearly stipulated working hours, leaving MDWs at the beck-and-call of their employers whenever care-related duties need to be performed within the household.
Obsessive and idiosyncratic controls
Reproductive labour takes place within the private sphere of the household by an employee forced to live within that household. Employers often fear intimate relations between MDWs and family members. The government further fears the possibility of a feminized migrant labor force settling into the host society. Authorities respond to these fears by holding employers legally liable should their MDWs get pregnant while working in the country.
Employers, in turn, respond to these regulations, as well as their own insecurities, by tightly controlling the movements of their MDWs such as confining her to the home and preventing her from interacting with outsiders. This isolation cuts the worker off from the outside world and prevents her from connecting with other workers, learning of her legal rights, as well as seeking assistance for work-related problems.
Consequently, workplace controls by employers often become obsessive, highly personalized and always extend into the worker’s private domains. At work, she is also outnumbered by members of the employer’s household and subject to the particular demands and idiosyncratic rules of the household. The nature of her work routine will depend in large part on the temperament and personality of members in the household. What, when and how much she can eat will depend on rules enforced upon her by the household.
Disempowered in recruitment and employment
MDWs ability to renegotiate the terms and conditions of their work are undermined by exploitative recruitment systems. Recruitment processes create a propensity for these workers to be trapped in debt bondage. While many countries often have laws to restrict (Indonesia, Singapore) or prohibit (Hong Kong, Philippines) recruitment agencies from charging fees to MDWs, they are often circumvented by informal recruiters and employment agencies. This leads to MDWs working without pay for up to seven months in order to repay “loans” to agencies. While authorities in Singapore do allow for abused workers to change employers, workers who have not worked-off these “loans” to agencies will have their debts compounded and have to work for several more months without wages.
Together, the nature of domestic work, lack of legal rights and exploitative recruitment systems make MDWs vulnerable to various forms of abuse. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report on Singapore indicated that almost two-thirds of MDWs surveyed were subject to forms of physical and psychological abuse such as repatriation threats, constant name-calling, food and sleep deprivation, forced confinement, violent beatings, scalding as well as sexual harassment and assault. This report also indicated that between 1999 and 2005, at least 147 MDWs died in the course of work.
While the government of Singapore has since responded to civil society pressure to expand employment protection for MDWs, they have fallen short of removing the live-in rule that requires the domestic worker to live in the home of her employer. The expansion of regulations under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) now offers workers greater protection against employer abuse, malnourishment and falling from heights while hanging the laundry. Yet, civil society calls for MDWs to be covered under the Employment Act and the Work Injury Compensation Act as well as the abolition of the live-in rule have been stoutly refused.
Fundamental change needed to address root problems
This week, local civil society groups are in Geneva making representations for Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review under the United Nations Human Rights Council. Among many others, they will repeat calls for the government of Singapore to recognize domestic work as work and to repeal the live-in rule for domestic workers. The Ministry of Manpower’s strategy of reform, on the other hand, focuses more on trying to reduce the frequency of MDW abuse while keeping workers legally and politically disempowered.
We may lament how cultural traits make it hard for employers to treat their MDWs better. We may try to change employer attitudes towards their MDWs or continue to punish them for maltreatment. Unfortunately, as long as the live-in rule exists and MDWs are not recognized as workers under the Employment Act, they will continue to remain vulnerable to abuse.
All views expressed are the author's own
Dr Charan Bal is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Binus University, Jakarta. He researches on migrant labour politics in Asia and the Gulf, with a forthcoming book entitled Production Politics and Migrant Labour Regimes on Palgrave Macmillan due out in the first half of 2016.