by Value Penguin
Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) make up one of the largest groups of migrant workers in Singapore due to the increasing need for Singaporeans to hire full-time help. Though demand is increasing, employers and workers face a number of significant risks. These risks range from innocent medical accidents to more sinister crimes that can create social polarity, political tension and personal loss to all parties involved. To identify and project the risks the FDW industry faces, we have compiled all the available data from the past 7 years to explain the most problematic areas of domestic worker employment.
Main Risks Facing Employers
Employers take on a considerable amount of risk when they hire a new domestic worker. Not only are you hiring a stranger from a different country to live in your home, but you are also fully responsible for their worker's medical needs and quality of life. Risks that employers may face in this industry include bond breaches, extremely high medical costs and cases of abuse against the employer or their family.
Risk of bond breaches
According to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the retention rate of domestic workers has been ranging around 50% since 2013 to 2017. Retention rate refers to the proportion of maids who have stayed with their employer for more than a year. However, it is worth keeping in mind that, though employment contracts terminate frequently, it is not indicative of actual bond breaches—the chance of an actual bond breach happening hovers at less than 1%. Also, the risk for security bond breaches is highest at the beginning of employment since most contracts terminate within the first 3 months.
Out of all the possible contract-breaching risks, the most prevalent risk is the one that employers fear the most: domestic workers running away. In 2010, there have been 4,000 cases of domestic workers running away from their employers, either to the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) or to their respective embassies, of which about 1,000 ran away to HOME. While the data on refugees to embassies haven't been updated since 2010, HOME's reports indicate that the number of runaways have remained relatively stable since 2010. 4,000 runaways annually would represent around 1.6% of the overall FDW population in Singapore. While this number may seem small, the risk of runaways presents a large cost burden on the employers as they could stand to lose their S$5,000 bonds while paying thousands of dollars in new agency fees and re-hiring costs.
The second risk an employer typically faces is the possibility of the domestic worker getting pregnant. From 2011 to 2015, there has been an average of 100 domestic worker pregnancies per year. Since 2010, however, the MOM ceased to fault the employer for this occurrence and relieved the employer's cost burden in the event of this contract breach. Nonetheless, the costs associated with this risk is still high as the employer will still be responsible for costs such as repatriation and re-hiring expenses.
Other domestic worker bond-breach risks employers may encounter is radicalization, with 9 cases being reported between 2016 and 2017, working illegally for another employer and illegal activities such as drug trafficking and prostitution.
Risks of FDW abuses against employer
According to the MOM, there have been 40 reported cases of domestic worker abuse against employers in 2014 and 2015. The type of abuse ranges from attempts to harm the employer or the employer's family member to outright murder. Usually, the domestic worker at fault has been known to go after a weak family member, like an ailing elderly relative or a child with special needs, and cites that it was a retaliation attempt against abuse. In most cases, the court has ruled that the domestic worker suffered from severe mental illness (usually depression or psychosis). Scams and thefts have been reported as well, with 10 cases of domestic worker theft between 2016 and 2017.
FDW hospitalization and workplace accident risks
Employers have to buy medical insurance for their domestic workers to cover hospitalization and accident expenses. However, your costs will be high if you risk not buying enough medical coverage with your maid insurance plan. Out of an annual average of 2,000 hospitalization cases between 2013 and 2015, 40 cases have resulted every year in hospital bills that were higher than the minimum required coverage of S$15,000. In one instance, a stroke of a long-time faithful domestic worker resulted in a S$55,000 hospital bill. Another domestic worker and her employer suffered a similar fate in the fall of 2017.
Workplace accidents pose another risk both to the employer and to the worker depending on the context. The worker risks danger by being forced to clean areas beyond their reach or perform illegal cleaning duties; the employer risks paying tens and thousands of dollars in out of pocket hospitalization costs or even around S$4,000 in repatriation and rehiring expenses should the domestic worker suffer a permanent damage. There was one reported case in 2017 where a worker fell and was severely injured as a result of illegally cleaning windows. In 2012, there were 10 cases of similar instances, even though cleaning windows has been banned by the MOM.
Main Risks Facing Foreign Domestic Workers
By far the greatest risk any domestic worker faces is abuse by her employer, which in turn acts as a catalyst for employer-related risks like runaways, lawsuits and theft. By understanding the risks domestic workers face in this industry, employers and workers alike may work together to prevent them. This will save employers the risk of paying out high legal fees and medical costs, while it could also improve domestic workers' working experience in Singapore.
Risk of abuse by employer
According to HOME, there were 1,212 cases of abuse in 2015,102 of which were physical abuse. Of that number, only 30 cases were filed in court. The most common forms of abuse include physical abuse (such as hitting, burning, torture), salary withholding and psychological abuse (denying privacy, severe verbal and emotional abuse and manipulation).
While the ramifications of abuse affect the worker directly, employers who engage in abusive behavior end up risking their own livelihood as well. Not only do employers run the risk of retaliation by their workers, but if caught, employers face severe penalties like legal fees, jail time, fines and being blacklisted from hiring domestic workers in the future. In most cases, employers who abuse their maids or withhold salaries end up paying much more out of pocket than they would have if they were law-abiding employers. For example, one woman had to pay S$34,500 for not paying her FDW the S$5,778 she was owed, an almost 600% increase in cost.
Risk projection for maids & employers
In order to put above figures into perspective, we must evaluate the likelihood that these risk events will happen to a domestic worker or her employer. The probability that an employer will encounter a runaway maid, face abuse, suffer a bond breach (pregnancy or otherwise), or pay a hospital bill that is higher than the insurance coverage in a given year is around 1.9%. Over the course of 10 years, however, the likelihood of suffering one of these events at least once increases to 17.44%. On the other hand, domestic workers have a 1.5% chance of facing abuse, hospitalization, suicide or accidents in a given year; if she plans to work for 10 years, the risk of suffering any of these events at least once increases to 14.25%.
Given the magnitude of potential loss (financially, psychologically and physically), these numbers are actually quite high. A 15-20% chance of facing real abuse and/or stomaching a large financial loss indicates that better domestic worker vetting processes and more meaningful regulations should be put in place to prevent costly and life-threatening risks from occurring in the domestic worker industry. It is also key to note that, while employers seem to face a greater chance of risk, the real number of FDW abuse is unidentified and may represent a larger portion of the 4,000 yearly runaways, which will increase their overall risk probability.
Why Risks Occur and the Importance of Being Protected
Even though the population of domestic workers in Singapore has been increasing, the frequency of risk events such as such as pregnancy, suicide and hospitalization has remained stable over the years, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Manpower. Although this indicates that the foreign domestic worker industry has became safer over time, it is still important to know why these risks occur in the first place. From our analysis of the industry overall, the most common reasons are perceived unfair treatment by the government on either side, bias along socioeconomic lines, and the simple nature of the job.
While you can't completely avoid problems arising from hiring a domestic helper, there are ways that you can mitigate risk and reduce your chances of having an adverse domestic worker experience. This includes doing thorough due diligence on your maid agency, purchasing an insurance policy that covers more than the minimum cost to prevent high out-of-pocket expense due to accidents, providing regular medical checkups to your domestic helper, clearly laying out the employment terms and conditions to your helper and enforcing guidelines in your household to prevent abuse from either side.
Using news articles, government and NGO reports, we compiled as much data as we could on individual risks facing employers and domestic workers alike. Due to large gaps of available statistics, it was nearly impossible to find any long-term trends or patterns. To create the most accurate picture of domestic helper industry risks, we utilized either the most relevant numbers (in some cases, the most recent number; in others, the number that seemed to be the most accurate) or the averages over a period of 7 years. For instance, suicide and pregnancy rates remained stable over a period of years, so we used their averages to predict their risk. On the other hand, the data for runaways was sporadic and hard to find, so we used the 2010 number after comparing samples of data from more recent sources, as it seemed to be the most accurate. For risk probability projections, we used a probability formula to calculate the percent chance of none of the risk events happening over a period of 10 years. This method assumes that events are independent of one another, which admittedly is an imperfect assumption that isn't applicable for every domestic worker or employer.
This was first published at Value Penguin's website, "Main Risks Facing Employers and Employees in the Foreign Domestic Worker Industry".