Transient Workers Count Too found that 5% of foreign domestic workers had to share their sleeping space with a male teenager or adult. This is against written law, with a possible fine of up to $10,000. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) confirmed this when the ministry responded to a query by the Straits Times.
The newspaper carried an article (link) about this survey result on 18 June 2016 when we shared with them the highlights from the survey. TWC2 ourselves were surprised at our own finding. It is not a subject that has been prominently raised before, and perhaps no one had expected this to be an issue.
The face-to-face (but anonymous) survey was conducted over a two-year period from June 2014 to May 2016. A total of 472 valid responses were collected from various locations where foreign domestic workers (FDWs) tended to gather on Sundays. We had mainly Filipinas and Indonesians in our survey sample, but there were also a number of Burmese and other nationalities.
FDWs’ vulnerability has several dimensions. One of them comes from the fact that they have to live with the households that they work for. The lack of delineation between their living space and their working place may increase the possibility of abuse and mistreatment. These may not be acute, such as being beaten or deprived of food — cases which have surfaced in the courts and the news recently — but unsatisfactory living conditions can produce chronic misery. Over time, the accumulated effects on workers’ self-esteem, well-being and mental health may be substantial.
The picture that emerges from our survey is one of considerable variation in FDWs’ living conditions. In general, about half or more scored quite well on various measures (with the exception of lengthy working hours), indicating that most employers were providing reasonable accommodation.
However, on the matter of working hours, the results were worthy of concern. Some 90% reported working ten or more hours on a typical weekday. The average was 13.9 hours per weekday.
About 30% were getting less than 8 hours’ sleep each night, and one in three of them (about 10%) were getting less than 6 hours. Most of their waking hours were spent working. 75% reported that the time they had for themselves amounted to 2 hours or less per typical weekday. It should be noted that even in this regard, there was plenty of variation. Some reported they enjoyed lots of free time, while a handful reported working 18 hours or more a day. Some reported having to wake up at 4am; some others reported being able to go to bed only at 1am or 2am.
About 90% slept in a bedroom. The others slept in unacceptable spaces, such as tiny, windowless storerooms or bomb shelters, or in open spaces like the living room or kitchen.
20% were not provided a bed, but only a mattress on a floor. One percent had it even worse. They were not even provided a mattress, but slept on hard floor.
Out of 429 respondents who provided sufficient details about who else shared their sleeping space, about 60% said they had the room/space to themselves. Of the 171 who had to share their sleeping space, 22 of them (13% of 171 or 5% of 429) reported that their co-sharers included a male teenager or adult. Only six of the male adults were elderly persons who needed assistance which might be why the FDWs were assigned the same room — though that would still be against the law.
One in three FDWs were not provided a locker that they could lock. But about one in four of those who had a locker also said that someone else in the household had a spare key.
Between unsatisfactory sleeping arrangements and the denial of private storage space, the lack of personal privacy faced by many FDWs is quite obvious. The constant feeling of being under scrutiny, with no private retreat possible, can wear anyone down. The deleterious effects on their well-being cannot be underestimated.
The survey also enquired about risks in the household with respect to alcohol consumption (especially heavy drinking) and tobacco smoke. Of particular concern is our finding that 23% of the households had at least one smoker. The law generally requires that workplaces be smoke-free. For FDWs however, the siting of their workplace within the private domain of a household creates a problem that needs greater attention, especially when the FDW is in the home for virtually all 24 hours, save on their rest days.