Singapore has to overcome “pluralistic ignorance” to prevent abuse of migrant domestic workers, said People’s Action Party politician and Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) executive director Shamsul Kamar.
In a commentary published on CNA on Saturday (13 Mar), Mr Shamsul explained how the ‘bystander effect’ could adversely impact migrant domestic workers’ safety and wellbeing.
Mr Shamsul, who contested in Aljunied GRC in the last general election, cited the well-known case of Catherine Susan ‘Kitty’ Genovese, who was brutally murdered outside of her apartment in New York City in March 1964.
Her case had led psychologists to discover the ‘bystander effect’, as 38 individuals who were present at the scene at the time the murder was taking place had turned their back on Genovese’s cries for help, as all of them had likely expected others to help her instead — a phenomenon called ‘diffused responsibility.
Noting that many actions could have been taken to save Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don from being abused and tortured to death by her employers, Mr Shamsul believes that the case is another example of how the ‘bystander effect’ works in reality.
“Any one of these timely community interventions could have saved her life. Unfortunately, this is a regretful story of ‘could have beens’ in an imperfect world where the life of a young mother was lost for reasons we are still learning,” he noted.
The bystander effect has also contributed to other issues that impact migrant domestic workers, Mr Shamsul noted.
He said the CDE has met many employers who advocate for better treatment of migrant domestic workers, such as granting them access to mobile phones, weekly rest days and full payment of salary.
Mr Shamsul added that the CDE has also campaigned regularly for the basic employment rights to be provided to all migrant domestic workers, but “practices running counter to these rights have persisted and are implicitly accepted by employers”.
“Out of over 2,000 FDWs (foreign domestic workers) we assisted in 2020, almost 50 per cent of them faced salary issues or some form of verbal and physical abuse, did not receive sufficient rest and food, were not given reasonable access to mobile phones, or were deprived of their weekly rest days,” said the PAP member.
Mr Shamsul stressed that Singapore has to overcome such “pluralistic ignorance”, which refers to situations where a majority of people privately reject a norm but go along with it because they assume that such a norm is widely accepted by others.
“In our work, we see employers saying that even though they know that it is incorrect for them to safekeep their FDWs’ salary, work permit, and passport or restrict their weekly off days, they do it because ‘everyone else they know is doing it,” he noted.
That said, both society and employers play a part to stop the abuse of migrant domestic workers.
Mr Shamsul said that society must recognise that migrant domestic workers are “fellow human beings” who also have families and loved ones to return to.
Employers need to show empathy to migrant domestic workers and treat them “as part of their extended household”, he added.
Lauding the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) commitment to work with the Ministry of Health to tighten the mandatory reporting structure for doctors to alert possible cases of abuse to the authorities, Mr Shamsul said: “Medical professionals have a duty of care to report suspicious-looking injuries even when FDWs chose to remain mum.”
He also revealed that the CDE is working with the International Labour Organisation under its Safe and Fair Migration programme to design and implement a community responder programme, set to be launched next year.
“FDWs should be educated so that they have the power to stop any abuse by speaking up and they need to know employment rights so that they can identify the boundaries in an employment relationship,” he asserted.
Abuse of migrant domestic workers can only be prevented if authorities are able to detect such cases more promptly, netizens say in response to Shamsul Kamar
Many netizens penned their thoughts under the comment section of CNA’s Facebook post on the article to voice opinions on the abuse of migrant domestic workers in Singapore, saying that such abuse towards migrant domestic workers could only be prevented if authorities take action against employers and employment agencies.
One user highlighted that the “critical issue here is violent abuse” which the authorities had failed to detect.
Several users opined that the authorities should make a weekly day off mandatory for migrant domestic workers, as they believe that the workers deserve to take a break from their work.
One netizen pointed out that the CDE and MOM are “both culpable for closing their eyes” on the abuse of migrant domestic workers, adding that the CDE had appeared to shift the blame of abuse on “pluralistic ignorance”, instead of protecting migrant domestic workers’ basic rights via policymaking.