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Singapore's migrant domestic workers face food rationing, long hours and sexual abuse
ABC Radio Australia - April 6, 2016
"My two younger kids did not come to me," she said. "Only my eldest son hugged me. I asked them why? And they said they felt shy. It was like they didn't know me."
Ms Mompal arrived in Singapore 16 years ago, searching for a steady wage to clear debts and provide her children with a good education. The arc of her story is not unique.
In December last year, official figures showed well over 230,000 migrant women worked as domestic help in the city-state. They come from developing countries nearby, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia, drawn to Singapore – a wealthy metropolis of opportunity.
Migrant domestic workers occupy an awkward position in Singapore's labour landscape. Firstly, they are not covered by the Employment Act – laws determining basic rights such as maximum hours of work and protections from unfair dismissal. Secondly, they are required to live with their employers, a stipulation unique to foreign domestic workers.
The Ministry of Manpower told the ABC that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia also have such requirements. "Living-in blurs the distinction between work and leisure," Dr Nicholas Harrigan, assistant professor in sociology at the Singapore Management University, said.
"This is a problem because if someone isn't really allowed to leave their workplace except for a few hours on a Sunday, then they really are technically working almost 24/7."
Domestic workers' employment experience of Singapore can vary greatly. Authorities have introduced some safeguards by publishing guidelines for hiring domestic workers and the majority of women secure steady employment. But many others fall through the cracks.
Workers have passports confiscated
A survey of 670 domestic workers by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) found 40 per cent did not have the mandated weekly day off.
And 67 per cent had their passports confiscated by their employers, while 65 per cent said they were "not always treated with dignity" by employers. An alarming 7 per cent said they had been victims of sexual abuse at least once by their employer or employer's family.
"Singapore's immigration framework encourages employers to 'control' their employees," HOME's Anja Wessels said. "The security bond of $S5,000 ($4,890) may be forfeited by employers if their employee engages in certain conduct and employers determine whether to allow their foreign domestic workers (FDW) to transfer to a new employer."
The mandatory bond paid by employers is designed to encourage the compliance of FDWs with Singaporean laws. "Employers should not be held liable for the private behaviour of their employees," Ms Wessels added. "It is also one of the reasons employers restrict the movement of their FDWs and confiscate their passports."
Successful for some, not so for others
Emilyn Urammeng has endured a run of bad luck since she came to Singapore from the Philippines. Her first employer deprived her of food. "I had only bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No rice, no vegetables, no meat," she recalled.
After seven months she transferred to a new family. Relations there were good at first, but after three months they too began to ration food and Ms Urammeng was given only instant noodles, supplemented by an egg a day.
She was occasionally allowed rice, but said it was not enough for her to sustain undertaking household chores and massage therapy for her elderly employers. After a year and nine months in Singapore, Ms Urammeng decided to return home to care for her two young children.
But when the ABC met her, she was living in a shelter run by HOME, and had been waiting for a month for her employers to return her passport.
"Singapore is a very nice place. Some of my friends have very good employers," she said. "Maybe I'm not lucky to find a good employer with a good heart."
Jocelyn Mompal was fortunate, spending 16 years with the same family. It was with her employer's encouragement that Ms Mompal enrolled in Aidha, an organisation that teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship to Singapore's domestic workers.
She invested her wages in building a house in the Philippines and now has two tenants. "My first goal was to give my children education and they've already finished," she said. "Then I wanted to have savings, to open my own business, and now I have a small business."
Challenge to eliminate exploitation remains
Singapore's reliance on migrant domestic workers will not diminish any time soon, but the challenge to eliminate exploitation remains.
"The biggest change that could be made to improve domestic workers' conditions in Singapore is to bring them under the jurisdiction of the Employment Act," Dr Harrigan said. "This would set clear standards around working time and rest, at the very least."
He said another change would be to allow domestic workers to live away from their workplace, in group housing, to reduce exploitation of working hours.