Stephanie Chok presenting the newly published report by HOME at its office.

Vague employment laws and policies lead to abuse of domestic workers, says HOME report

While the Singapore government emphasises that Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) are covered by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (EFMA), the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Liberty Shared claim that the ambiguous language of the EFMA is insufficient to effectively protect MDWs or preserve their rights.

Their report on Forced Labour in Singapore – co-published by anti-human trafficking organisation Liberty Shared – states that the ambiguous language of the EFMA leaves MDWs vulnerable to abuse and impacts their welfare.

One example provided in the report is that MDWs are not protected by legal limits on working hours as the EFMA only stipulates that MDWs should have ‘adequate rest’. This lack of specificity, add HOME, enables employers to pressure MDWs to work gruelling hours – between 16 to 18 hours a day, an in one case even 20 hours a day.

The ambiguity in the EFMA negatively impacts the welfare of MDWs. Presently the EFMA requires employers to provide ‘acceptable’ accommodation, ‘adequate’ food, ‘adequate’ rest, and ‘reasonable’ notice of repatriation. HOME notes that the lack of specificity means that the wellbeing and working conditions of MDWs are largely dependent on the whims of their employers and their interpretation of these regulations.

As such, HOME has set out some recommendations in order to strengthen the legislative protection granted to MDWs, including granting basic employment rights as well as greater specificity in law on particular practices and forms of abuse.

One recommendation is to extend the Extend the Employment Act to cover MDWs so that the basic labour rights such as working hours, sick leave, limits on overtime and notice periods, among others are better regulated. HOME argues that the EFMA only offers a limited set of protections and entitlements which are not equal to those provided for under the EA. Moreover, purrent provisions under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act are too vaguely worded to offer reliable protection, thus thus leaving MDWs highly vulnerable to abuse.

Another recommendations is for Singapore to Ratify the 2014 Protocol on Forced Labour whch is an International Labour Organisation (ILO) fundamental convention also known as the Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour, 1930. HOME calls for Singapore to work towards applying the recommendations set out in the 2016 Forced Labour (Supplementary Measures) Recommendation which they say is one way for Singapore to make any progress towards the prevention and eradication of forced labour as per international benchmarks.

HOME notes that at the moment, Singapore’s Prevention of Human Trafficking Act is similarly undefined. They assert that the core concepts of the Act, including forced labour and exploitation are not aligned with international standards. As a result, victim identification and the provision of holistic support for survivors of forced labour and trafficking are inhibited.

However in response, MOM asserted that the current EFMA is adequate and already aligned with the protocoal which Singapore had ratified in 2016. The Protocol came into effect in late 2016 having been ratified by 178 out of 187 member countries.

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.”

HOME clearly disagrees. In their report, they say that forced labour ‘can and does occur in ‘ordinary households’’, adding that it can be perpetuated by accepted behavioural norms by ordinary people. HOME says that forced labour often takes place in formal economies and among documented workers with legal status who participate in highly regularised migration regimes. That is why a more robust recognition of exploitation and coercion of MDWs is a necessary starting point in dealing with forced labour.