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Migrant domestic workers in Singapore working in conditions akin to forced labour according to new report

In a report by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Hong Kong-based anti-human trafficking organisation Liberty Shared, the top three problems that foreign domestic workers faced in Singapore were overwork, verbal abuse, and salary related disputes.

However, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) rebutted the findings, saying that it “does not accurately reflect the employment and working conditions of FDWs in Singapore”

The report, which examined the issue of forced labour among MDWs in Singapore, was released on Tuesday (15 Jan). It paints a grim view of the troubles faced by this vulnerable group and suggests several recommendations to alleviate the issue.

HOME first sets out the conditions of forced labour. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO), a person is considered to be in a situation of forced labour ‘if they enter work or service against their freedom of choice, and cannot leave it without penalty or the threat of penalty’. Some indicators of this include restriction of movement, withholding of wages, intimidation, and abuse of vulnerability.

Under the Work Permit, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure domestic workers do not violate the terms of their WPs. These terms include restrictions on marriage, mandatory medical examinations and ensuring that MDWs are not involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities. Also, employers have to furnish a S$5,000 bond to the government for each worker hired.

These regulations, according to the report, effectively incentivize employers to adopt draconian control measures to restrict and monitor their MDWs movements, activities and communication. MDWs face the threat of violence, food deprivation, verbal abuse, overwork, and more.

One of the recommendations put forth by HOME in their report is for Singapore to Ratify the 2014 Protocol on Forced Labour and work towards applying the recommendations set out in the 2016 Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation.

They also recommend extending the Employment Act (EA) to MDWs so that basic labour rights for MDWs, such as working hours, sick leave, limits on overtime and notice periods, among others, are regulated.

Responding to that, MOM said that the current Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA) is already aligned with the protocol, which Singapore ratified in 2016.

The ministry added, “it is also important to recognise that forced labour is a complex issue. Meeting one or more of the ILO’s forced labour indicators may not necessarily mean that a worker is indeed in a forced labour situation, as each case needs to be assessed based on the facts.”

However, it was shared during the launch of the report on Tuesday that MOM agrees with HOME that there is a gap or grey area between EFMA and the human trafficking act. This makes it a tough task for both the government and NGOs to protect the MDWs due to the difficulty in proving the circumstances in which they are intimidated psychologically, verbally or financially.

Illustrating the problem further, HOME cited several cases as examples to illustrate forced labour such as the case of an MDW with the pseudonym Indah who stayed in the shelter in 2017. Indah worked for nearly 10 years for an employer who withheld more than S$40,000 of her salary. She was also prohibited from owning a mobile phone, and could not speak to her family for almost seven years.

MOM’s alleged response to this case, was to suggest that Indah could have expressed that it was ok for her wages to be retained for ten years.

Another MDW named Ella was forced by her employer to continued hand washing the family’s clothes on a daily basis despite having complained that her hands were starting to hurt. She was also subjected to verbal abuse and worked 17-hour days with only one rest day a month.

An MDW named Myaing was subjected to food deprivation, constant verbal abuse, and was forced to sleep on the balcony.

However, in this case, MOM deemed there was no ‘valid claim’ and insisted on sending the domestic worker back to her agency. She ran away from them after being told she had to pay to be able to return to her home country.

An MDW named Rosa was not given any rest days and worked 19 hours a day. When she asked for a transfer because of the working conditions, the employer allegedly threatened her and restricted her movement by not allowing her to leave the home for whatever reasons. As a result, Rosa tried to escape the house through the windows but she fell and fractured both her legs. She was then investigated by the police for attempted suicide and was handcuffed to the bed during her stay at the hospital by the police. The police did not share whether the employer was investigated and eventually issued a stern warning to her in light of the alleged suicide attempt.

Stephanie Chok, author of the report, presenting her report at HOME’s office at Geylang Road

These are just some of the troubling cases that HOME dealt with over the years.

Unfortunately, HOME reported that under Singapore’s current legislative framework governing domestic workers, there is very little avenue for redress. Such harsh treatments are deemed inadequate for the police to pursue criminal charges. Meanwhile, issues such as excessive working hours, lack of rest days, verbal abuse, inadequate food, poor living conditions, constant surveillance, wrongful confinement, threats, retention of identity documents are not offences that generally attract punishment by the MOM or the police.

HOME noted that domestic workers are often asked to undergo polygraph or lie detector tests by the MOM and are always warned by officers that they are liable to being charged for making a false statement if their testimony is inaccurate. The intimidation and anxiety often result in many of them choosing not to pursue charges and just returning home instead.

To address this, HOME recommended providing capacity-building programmes to law enforcement officers and other relevant front-line responders.

In essence, HOME called for Singapore to commit fully to mitigating the risk of forced labour situations and protect the vulnerable group of MDWs in Singapore.

Other recommendations by HOME include:

  • Amend the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014 and ensure its full compliance with the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.
  • Establish the right for MDWs to switch employers freely, with clearly defined notice periods that employers and employees are to abide by.
  • Reform and abolish security bond conditions.
  • Shift towards a zero recruitment fees model.
  • Strengthen cross-border cooperation with MDWs’ home countries to regulate recruitment and establish mandatory working conditions in compliance with international labour standards.
  • Abolish the online reference channel which allows employers to leave unsubstantiated and unverified feedback about a worker.
  • Commit fully to mitigating the risk of forced labour situations arising by ensuring freedom of movement, making it compulsory for employers to pay MDWs via bank transfer and provide pay slips, and enforcing stricter penalties for those who are abusing MDWs. Set clear standards on these aspects as current EFMA regulations lack specificity.