In an attempt to provide better care for domestic helpers in Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has introduced a new home visits scheme where its officers will visit the workers at their employers’ home to check up on their welfare and living conditions.
For a start, MOM’s officers will visit 200 homes a month, the Ministry said on Monday (26 Apr).
MOM began carrying out visits to randomly picked homes on 5 Apr, said MOM’s director of engagement, Tan Shu Xiang.
“During these home visits, our MOM officers will actually be checking on the working and living environments of the migrant domestic workers, so as to ensure that they are well settled in,” he said.
He added: “We also remind the employers and the domestic workers about safe working conditions, as well as information about channels to seek assistance from if required.”
This move comes after a string of abuse cases of domestic helpers surfaced, with some even lead to their death.
In February this year, housewife Gaiyathiri Murugayan admitted to starving and torturing a 24-year-old Myanmar domestic worker Piang Ngaih Don, leading to her death.
The Myanmar national only weighed 24kg at the time of her death.
In November last year, a woman constantly abused an Indonesian domestic helper employed by her family, forcing the worker to flee by climbing down 15 storeys from a balcony.
The employer was sentenced to 10 months and two weeks’ jail term.
Apart from home visits, MOM also intends to expand in-person interviews to all first-time domestic helpers by end of this year, said Mr Tan.
The Centre for Domestic Employees (CDE) plans to interview 2,000 maids a month.
The centre has been carrying out in-person interviews with randomly picked first-time domestic helpers since 2017, normally three to six months after they start work.
But after Monday’s announcement, all first-time domestic workers will be interviewed, MOM noted.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews have only been happening via video calls.
CDE plans to resume in-person interviews in May.
The appointed officers will be well-trained to spot non-verbal cues that could reveal violations or unfair working conditions, which the Ministry would then follow up on.
If a case of abuse is detected, the police will be alerted on the matter.
The new measures will help MOM to “respond quickly” to the helpers’ needs and allow the Ministry to address any issues and concerns they raise, said Mr Tan.
Around 100 home visits have been conducted so far, and no issues were found in most of these houses, he noted.
Speaking at a media briefing at the MOM Service Centre at Bendemeer Road on Monday, MOM representatives and CDE said that that home visits and interviews would help to strengthen the ecosystem of support for domestic workers.
“It’s important that we take good care of our migrant domestic workers while they are working in Singapore. And this requires all our stakeholders, the employers, employment agencies, MOM, our community partners like CDE, to work closely together so as to create a strong system of support,” said Mr Tan.
“MOM is looking into reviewing all the safeguards against abuse and we’re looking into a comprehensive set of measures. Even as the review is in progress, we have introduced the house visits so we can make sure we support our migrant domestic workers,” he added.
In response to questions raised by the media on how the interviews at the house visits are conducted and if the employers will be present during such interviews, Mr Tan explained that the objective is to “provide a conducive environment” for domestic helpers to voice their concerns.
“During the house visit, officers will make sure that the domestic workers have the privacy and the space needed to surface any issues to us,” he said.
MOM’s senior assistant director of enforcement planning, Li Junjie said that MOM officers do not stop employers from listening in on the interview.
“But what we want is for the employer not to interfere when we are engaging the migrant domestic worker,” he stated. “And if we see that the employer’s presence is affecting the domestic worker, we may then request for the employers to maybe step aside. If necessary, we may ask the domestic worker to come out of the house for us to engage her.”
On the other hand, Mr Tan noted that employers who refuse visits from MOM’s officers will be asked to bring in their domestic helpers to MOM for an interview.
Activist Jolovan Wham says such scheme existed before
In the comment section of The Straits Times’ Facebook post on the issue, civil rights activist and social worker Jolovan Wham said that a similar scheme was introduced by MOM more than a decade ago, where randomly selected domestic workers were asked to make their way to MOM for interviews in order to check on their wellbeing.
The current new scheme is just “an extension” of the old scheme, he said.
Mr Wham said that the issue with this new scheme is that most domestic helpers are afraid of speaking up in the presence of their employers, raising questions on how truthful they will be when asked by the MOM’s officers.
“Domestic workers need to be empowered to speak up and seek help, and this can only be achieved if they have mandatory rest days, access to their phones and protections which do not make it easy for employers to send them back to their countries,” he said.
Separately, in the comment section of CNA‘s Facebook post, Mr Wham pointed out that MOM has to come up with regulations to improve these domestic workers’ living conditions.
“Right now, it is still legal to put a domestic worker in a storeroom where she shares her space with household items, with no window and ventilation. Spot checks can only go so far,” he said.
He reiterated that most domestic workers are scared to speak up, and real change can only happen when they are “empowered to seek help”.
This can only happen by making sure they get “rest days, have access to phones and right to seek redress when they are unfairly terminated”, said Mr Wham.
Mixed reactions from online users
Over on social media, netizens gave mixed reactions to MOM’s latest announcement of its home visits scheme.
Penning their thoughts on the Facebook pages of The Straits Times and CNA, online users questioned how effective this scheme will be, given that employers are allowed to be present during the house visits.
This opens the possibility of domestic workers not being honest when questioned by the MOM officers, as they are afraid of the repercussions from their employers.
However, some were of the view that it is important for MOM to check on abuse of children and the elderly under the care of migrant domestic workers.
They explained that there are many cases of domestic workers abusing these vulnerable groups.
However, a large number of netizens at the same time also supported MOM’s latest initiative. They said that it is a “good move” and will help as a deterrent against abuse.
Some suggested that doctors should look for signs of abuse when domestic helpers come for their six-monthly compulsory medical check-up.
They added that doctors can ask the helpers more questions and ensure that the employers are not present so that these workers will feel safe to speak up.