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Ms Archana Kotecha, Asia Region Director and Head of Legal at Liberty, speaking at the launch of the report at HOME's office in Jan 2019

Domestic workers are psychologically coerced into conditions of forced labour

In a panel discussion about the report on forced labour in the migrant domestic work sector, Archana Kotecha said that many countries are much further along than Singapore in their journey in offering protections to migrant domestic workers (MDWs).

Ms Kotecha, Asia Region Director and Head of Legal at Liberty Shared – who collaborated with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) on the report – pointed out that people tend to assume that having anti-trafficking laws immediately means that everyone is safe and no one is exploited.

“But having an anti-trafficking law does not preclude from the need to have a robust labour protection regime…forced labour does exist independent of human trafficking”, said Ms Kotecha.

The cases cited by HOME in their report are truly heartbreaking. Some of the 872 the MDWs that have sought help from HOME between April 2017 and March 2017 were working and living in conditions that the International Labour Organisation would classify as forced labour.

Some MDWs end up severely injured in desperate escape attempts and many do not reach out for help until much, much later when the conditions have deteriorated drastically. HOME notes that MDWs are often coerced into forced labour condition via psychological threats.

Stephanie Chok, Research & Advocacy Manager at HOME and author of the report said that employers will sometimes threaten their domestic workers. “One method they use is to go online and leave their contact details for prospective employers who can then call them and they can make unsubstantiated, unverified feedback. And this can potentially ruin DWs opportunity to return to SG to work,” she elaborates. That itself is a powerful threat and an effective means of coercion.

Stephanie Chok, Research & Advocacy Manager at HOME.

During the discussion, someone highlighted that Singaporeans also work long hours and sometimes have their phones taken away at work. That person asked why that’s not considered forced labour as well.

Ms Chok explains that coercion is frequently more subtle and not immediately observable. That means that one cannot merely assessed ILO’s forced labour indicators as discreet but instead consider their cumulative impact. Continual intimidation and threats over time, deception of working conditions, and debt bondage alter the dynamic of power and autonomy that these MDWs have once they arrive in Singapore. Unlike an average working Singaporean, they can’t just ‘leave work’ at the end of the day. There is limited or sometimes no freedom of movement or access.

Ms Chok goes on to touch on the debt repayment system in Singapore. While legally, an MDW’s pay can be held for a maximum of two month to repay recruitment debts, in reality it is held much longer under the guise of ‘personal debt repayment’. This debt bondage exerts a coercive power over MWDs. Employers often impose additional restrictions during the loan repayment period while agents will pressure MDWs to stay in unfavourable working conditions until the loan is paid off.

And there’s not much by way of legal recourse for MDWs either as authorities are reluctant to pursue a complaint if there’s no physical abuse. Unfortunately, much of the abuse is not physical. Ms Kotecha reiterates Ms Chok’s earlier point that MDWs end up in desperate situations and feel helpless because psychological coercion is ‘a tough nut to crack’. She says, “In modern day slavery, the chains are invisible and proving those is the hard part”.

“How do you prove that when you threatened this worker, they took it seriously and they were scared? How do you prove that the stigma of going back home penniless, not having earned anything, would mean that somebody would stay in an abusive situation? How do you prove that in the first eight months when she was experiencing abuse she did not leave, she did not seek assistance because she would have had to find the money to pay for another job or because her employment agency would have compelled her to pay a penalty fee? How do you prove those things?” she added.

All of these coercive powers play into the situation where a person ends up feeling helpless, with no choice but to remain in the horrible situation. On top of that, the authorities’ say they are complaint driven – meaning if you don’t complain, they can’t do anything.

Ms Kotecha emphasises that ‘a person has to be empowered to complain’. One way to empower them is to make sure the law is on their side and that it is also clear. You empower them by giving them an avenue to seek assistance. Right now, that’s tough to do.

On top of the psychological factors here in Singapore, MDWs also face the psychological and emotional impact of returning home indebted, having not earn much at all from the country they went to. They go home and see other people sending money home and doing well. “That in itself is an incredible burden to bear”, Ms Kotecha says, for the family, the community and especially the individual.

She added, “all that plays into the fact that somebody may not step out of an abusive situation.”

So when you start to strip away all these elements, you really start to understand what psychological coercion looks like and why just a threat about reporting them to the police would keep MDWs from doing so.

“To the person in that situation, in that vulnerability, it means a whole different thing”, says Ms Kotecha.

Note: The article had earlier stated that all of the 872 MDWs that sought help from HOME were working in forced labour conditions. This had been revised to “some of the 872 MDWs”.