“We’re not supposed to swim,” says Ana, a domestic worker. “I’m not sure why. I think it’s maybe because they think we’re dirty.”
In the block where Ana lives, domestic workers can’t book a barbecue on their own, they can’t form groups and they can’t sit and eat beside the playgrounds where they look after resident’s children.
A couple of months ago TWC2 published a story on foreign domestic workers arriving in Singapore for the first time, you can read it here.
The story, about the Settling In Programme run by the Ministry of Manpower, talked about getting used to life in Singapore. The course talked about the great opportunities that living here would bring, the promise that the sacrifice they made – in leaving their own families to move here – would be all worthwhile.
The promise is that working life in Singapore is an opportunity they should grab with both hands.
What new domestic workers aren’t fully prepared for when they arrive in Singapore, is being treated as an underclass. Despite the best efforts to enjoy their working lives here, they face daily discrimination through rules and regulations – which aren’t a part of Singapore law – enforced on them by Singapore residents via management committees.
The condos they live in are home to hundreds of locals and expats; facilities range from swimming pools to barbecue dining, playgrounds, badminton and tennis courts. Several domestic workers we interviewed spoke of being issued with different access cards for their buildings and ad hoc bans on using resident facilities. They were angry about being prevented from feeling part of their communities, particularly given the vital service they provide.
TWC2 spoke to six domestic workers from various residential blocks to find out how the rules were applied and enforced and how it made them feel.
One of the workers we spoke to, called Rose, said her employer once borrowed her access card to use the gym, only to discover that it wouldn’t open the gym door. She had been provided with a ‘maid’s card’ which opened only the front gate and the door to the flat, but prevented access to any of the other facilities.
When her employer asked the guards why this was the case he was told that domestic workers were not allowed to use the gym.
“The guard told him why and that’s when he found out. He told me what happened and he keeps murmuring about it, asking why they won’t allow maids [to use facilities],” Rose explains.
Marking out territories that are ‘no-go’ areas for domestic workers just makes them more aware that they are being treated differently from everyone else.
“I laughed at him,” Rose says, “and told him that’s why I don’t go down and swim, because I don’t want to be embarrassed and told to get out of the pool.”
Jo, another domestic worker, says bans often follow a request to do something fun. One day she tried to book a game of volleyball with her friends but was quickly interrupted by the management, who told them that residents had complained. She and her friends – all domestic workers – were then banned from using the volleyball court.
On one occasion they were banned from eating outside by the children’s playground because a resident had reported that their child had been bitten by ants. Domestic workers also reported being asked to use the freight lifts in their buildings to avoid brushing shoulders with residents.
“As long as we’re not disturbing anyone, I don’t see what the problem is,” says Jo. “If we eat and make a mess, we clean it up after ourselves. We are maids after all.”
Rules and guidelines on all occupants in condominium buildings in Singapore are governed under the Management Corporation Strata Title, but are occasionally driven by over zealous residents, who believe domestic workers are not entitled to use the recreational facilities reserved for residents.
In private residential buildings, a management committee oversees the welfare of the building including setting rules and regulations for its residents, and often there are members who bitterly contest the rights of domestic workers to use facilities.
We asked questions of management in one of these blocks where some of these girls live and were told that the rules were not intentionally discriminatory. The by-laws show that domestic workers don’t get the privileges of the condominium because officially, they are not classified as residents, as determined by the committee.
‘Resident means the occupier of a lot which definition shall, where appropriate, include an owner or any other person authorised by such owner to occupy the lot as a tenant or lessee thereof and shall include the members of the family of such occupier, provided always that this term “member of the family” shall not include guests, servants or agents of the occupier,’ the rule states.
These rules don’t apply to all condos in Singapore and it is worth highlighting that the luxury of facilities isn’t afforded to most domestic workers. Other domestic workers we spoke to had full access to the facilities in their buildings including swimming pools and tennis courts, but don’t feel comfortable enough to use them.
One resident passed us a letter she sent requesting permission for her domestic workers to use facilities. The reply said: ‘Please be informed we are unable to let your helper use the facilities as provided in the house rules.’
Under Singapore law domestic workers are still excluded from the Employment Act, as the government maintains that because they work in a private household, the Employment Act would be too difficult to enforce.
Issues around discrimination do persist in Singapore as the problem of what legally defines a discriminatory act have not been enshrined in any binding legislation, so condominiums govern themselves and are able to pass rules that are overtly discriminatory.
Singapore has been urged by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to incorporate a definition of discrimination against women into relevant legislation and constitutions, and to include ‘both direct and indirect discrimination’ and ‘include provisions to prohibit all forms of discrimination against women on all grounds’.
But progress in this area has been slow. CEDAW, the Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women, defines what constitutes discrimination against women and was set up to spur national action to end such discrimination.
TWC2 immediate past president John Gee said that management committees who implement rules like to argue that domestic workers are like cleaners, gardeners or maintenance workers, who happen to live on site and thus should not be allowed to enjoy the facilities reserved for residents.
“Unlike most of the other workers mentioned, they often don’t have access to alternative facilities, since they work such long hours and must stay in their employers’ homes. All in all, these attitudes are very unfair,” he says.
More noticeable is the feeling of being looked down upon as “just a maid”, rather than as a working resident or the quasi family member that they are.
“As a maid you have to be dumb,” Jo explains, talking about how a previous employer used to treat her. “You must know your place – you’re a maid, you’re a maid, you’re dumb – but whatever happens you can’t forget you’re a maid.”
Their frustration at the lack of respect is clearly exacerbated by what they see as their vital economic role in two societies – in this case the Philippines, which benefits enormously from the remittances they send home, and Singapore, where their work similarly props up an economy dependent on foreign workers.
“Management committees need to be taken to task, as I’m sure they don’t have such discriminatory policies for visitors,” says Braema Mathi, president of Maruah, a leading human rights organisation.
“But the greater culpability does not honestly lie with the management committee, however. It lies with the employers and their attitudes because it’s the very same employer who gets on to become a management committee member, because you have to be a resident in the condo in the facility.”
Domestic workers are given enormous responsibilities by their employers: to look after babies, young children and the elderly, and there’s now a growing argument that Singapore needs to prepare better for life after domestic workers.
“We must develop skills sets in dealing with domestic workers,” says Braema. “But there needs to be support services, to ween employers off relying on domestic workers.”
Officially the laws that govern the residential blocks in which domestic workers live and which are mentioned in this article may not be discriminatory under Singapore law, but it’s very clear that the effects are.