TL;DR – Well, we can definitely treat them better.
735 Filipino and Indonesian maids in Singapore responded to a survey conducted by independent consultancy Research Across Borders. 60% of those respondents were identified as being exploited. 23% were identified as victims of forced labour that involved threats, control, leverage or force.
What does exploitation mean?
The exploitation that maids suffer come in many different forms. Many maids reported having to use their own money to pay for meals and other essentials that should be provided by their employer by law. Some maids who did not have rooms of their own reported sleeping in storage and living rooms. One respondent said that she slept on the front balcony, while another said that she slept in front of the toilet.
Then there are issues of salaries being deducted for minor mistakes. A maid said that her employer deducted her salary because she had cut tofu wrongly. Some maids have had their salary withheld. An employer was fined S$15,000 for not paying her maid’s monthly salary for about a year, which amounted to about S$5,700.
Some maids suffer even more. There are reported cases of sexual, physical and psychological violence, including biting, scalding and slapping. In September, a woman was convicted of hitting her maid with a hammer, bamboo pole and stole pestle, among other household items, causing the worker permanent disfiguration.
MOM disputes the findings
In response to the survey, MOM said that the study “painted a misleading picture of the employment of foreign domestic workers (FDW) in Singapore”. MOM also disagreed with the researchers’ take on exploitation, saying that the authors of the survey didn’t consider the unique nature of domestic work when interpreting the indicators.
For example, the study did not consider that work and personal time in the context of a domestic helper cannot be easily differentiated. Also, it did not consider that employers are responsible for the maids’ and their family’s well-being and safety. MOM also said that maids not being given house keys and needing permission to leave the house, or other similar situations, should not be considered as “isolation” or “confinement”.
The study’s lead researcher, Ms Wessels, said her latest study was sound as it demonstrated validity, reliability and objectivity, and she welcomed further research work on the subject. She also clarified:
“The intention of this report was never to denounce the Singapore Government or Singapore in general but to seek a discourse. As such, I respect and welcome any feedback.”
Sure, MOM has strengthened measures to improve the well-being of FDWs over the years. For instance, this year, it increased the minimum sum assured under FDWs’ Personal Accident Insurance from $40,000 to $60,000.
And yes, there is also another side to the story. There are maids who abuse their elderly employers, or mistreat the children when the adults aren’t home. That’s why some employers have surveillance cameras installed at home to observe what the maids are doing when they’re out. That’s fair.
We can do better
These maids have families of their own back home whom they support. Families they care about. Families they probably miss a whole lot. Yet, they decided to tear themselves away from their families so that they can get better jobs to give their families a better future. And given how hard the maids in Singapore work, the least we can do is to treat them decently, pay them on time, let them have some time to rest.
Regardless of what MOM or whatever study says, we definitely can be decent human beings and reasonable employers.