While the public is well aware of the multiple issues faced by migrant workers living in dormitories ever since the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore, but many have little knowledge on the problems that migrant domestic workers (MDWs) have to go through due to the implementation of the circuit-breaker regulations, said Human Organisation of Migration Economics (HOME) in a statement.
The organisation added that since the onset of the circuit-breaker regulations came in place on 7 April, it has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of calls to its helpline.
“Many of these issues have existed before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of the circuit-breakers measures; they have exacerbated in recent weeks as MDWs are facing increased isolation,” said the NGO that advocates migrant worker rights.
Overworked, verbal abuse and insufficient rest
In terms of well-being issues, a number of MDWs are subjected to increased hours of work given that their employers are now at home for the majority of time. This leads to an increase in household and caregiving duties.
Since MDWs are not covered under the Employment Act, they are not entitled to get a fixed working hours or overtime pay.
“Under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, MDWs are to be given ‘adequate’ rest, a term which is not defined. As a result, their rest hours, MDWs’ rest hours, which are subject to the generosity of individual employers, have become even more precarious than they already are,” HOME explained.
To make it worse, these workers are also facing an increased amount of stress as “they are isolated with their employers for longer periods of time”.
“Complaints of verbal abuse have been on the rise, as disputes between employers and MDWs become more frequent due to increased proximity between employers and MDWs,” HOME said.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) also released an advisory last month stating that MDWs are not allowed to leave the house on their rest day in order to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus within the community.
However, this negatively impacted the workers as they are asked to work during their rest days since they are at home, the NGO pointed out.
“MDWs who do not have their own space within their employers’ houses (for example, those who have shared sleeping areas with other members of the household) are especially susceptible to this, as they do not have a comfortable space to rest and therefore end up working on their rest days.”
Restricted from leaving the house
HOME also highlighted that some employers prohibit the MDWs from leaving the house to run “essential errands like buying food, remitting money and for exercise”.
“There have been MDWs whose employers informed them that they will be reported to the authorities if they leave the house at all. This causes great stress to them, particularly to MDWs who are unable to send money home. Many of them are sole breadwinners for their families, who are themselves facing financial hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” HOME said.
As such, the organisation call for MOM to issue a “clarification for employers that MDWs should be allowed to leave their house to complete essential errands, and for exercise, while observing safe distancing measures.”
Constantly watched by employers and phone restrictions
Given that the workers’ working hours have increased, many of them have very limited access to their mobile phones. They are not able to speak to their loved ones back home during this unprecedented isolation period.
“MDWs who have limited access to avenues of communication are unable to report instances of abuse that may manifest as a result of increased isolation,” the organisation stated.
It added, “The inability to report abusive conditions is an issue relevant to all victims of domestic violence, and live-in MDWs have been recognised by the law as a vulnerable group who are more susceptible to abuse and exploitation.”
Adding to the bad news, some MDWs may not even be able to leave their employers’ houses to seek for help as their movements are closely being monitored by their bosses.
“This may lead to some MDWs having to tolerate abusive or exploitative conditions, and be susceptible to forceful repatriation by their employers before a report of such conditions can be made.
“MDWs may also be fearful of running away from their employers’ houses for fear of breaching circuit breaker measures.”
Given this uncertain and tough economic times, some MDWs also face delayed payment of salaries, been asked to take a pay cut and even to go on unpaid leave with no guarantee that their full salaries will be paid at a later time.
Based on this, HOME requested MOM to inform employers that MDWs should be paid their full salaries in a timely manner, and apply enforcement measures to those who defy this.
The organisation also added that MOM should decree electronic payment of salaries for these workers.
“A levy waiver for the next three months for all employers of MDWs will also help employers afford their MDWs, and for them to be paid their full wages on time,” it opined.
Termination and difficulties in transferring to new employers
Another issue that HOME brought up is the termination of MDWs by their employers and their inability to return to their home countries due to travel restrictions imposed by many countries in the region. Some are unsure if they can return back to their hometowns even if they’re repatriated because of the internal lockdowns and limitation on domestic travel imposed by their own government.
To make it worse, some workers told the organisation that they are not sure if their employers have terminated their work permits and are scared if they will overstay in Singapore without proper documents.
As for MDWs whose contract ends during the circuit-breaker period, they are also facing difficulties in getting their applications to transfer to other employers approved by MOM.
“HOME has heard accounts from MDWs whose applications for a new work permit have been rejected, despite multiple appeals,” it said.
It added, “Employment agencies have told HOME that applications by Singaporeans and permanent residents, as well as prospective employers who are eligible for levy concession (i.e. live with a child below 16 years old, elderly person who is at least 67 years old or person with disabilities) are prioritised.”
Therefore, MOM should look into approving the work permit applications for all MDWs who wants to transfer employers, HOME said.