“The majority of respondents did not get enough to eat, regularly ate a limited variety of food, and often went to bed hungry in employers’ homes,” reported Charlene Mohammed in her research paper publicly available at the University of Victoria website. The researcher is with the university’s Department of Anthropology, and conducted her study in Singapore in 2016.
Through “multiple in-depth interviews with 28 Indonesian domestic workers recruited through several different networks, 18 employers of Indonesian domestic workers recruited through several networks, and 38 individuals who work with Indonesian domestic workers in various capacities,” she found that Indonesian domestic workers here faced problems of food security; they “struggled to get enough food to feel full”.
Excerpts from interview statements revealed that “employers manipulated food to control domestic workers”, and some workers were given spoiled or poor quality food.
Albeit that this was a qualitative study and not a quantitative one, the sample size behind the conclusions still seemed small. It would also have been interesting to see the statements and responses made by the 18 employers interviewed, but they weren’t particularly highlighted in the report.
Among her recommendations, Charlene Mohammed calls on authorities to require employers to allow domestic workers to have access to phone, neighbours, etc, and to write into law minimum daily food allowances. The problem lies in how to operationalise these, a problem she recognises, and for which she calls for “mandatory unannounced check-ins for all households with domestic workers.” However, the workload involved will be huge, plus other problems of cost (for the taxpayer) and intrusiveness.
She also calls for “Remov[ing] employers’ power to send domestic workers home, and remov[ing] employers’ power to deny permission to domestic workers to transfer employers”, which TWC2 fully concurs with.
As for recommendations for employers, she calls on them to “stop using food as a strategy of control” and to “create a home environment where domestic workers can voice their concerns”. Unfortunately, these may be a tad unrealistic. It should also be qualified: many employers treat their workers well. The question then becomes: why don’t the others?
Overall, TWC2 believes that there should be greater clarity about the root of the problem, whereupon better solutions will come into view.
The root of the problem lies in the massive power imbalance between employer and employee — which some employers exploit, while others do not — such that even if unannounced checks are made by officials, domestic workers may still say everything is fine for fear of losing their jobs. This is especially so while they are still paying off their agency fees.
While suppressing employers’ power to deny transfer will reduce the power imbalance somewhat, the worker may still fear difficulty in obtaining a transfer job, and the loss of income in the interim.
Solutions should therefore be focussed on addressing the power imbalance. No doubt they will have to be far reaching and therefore may take time to implement fully, not least because they require structural changes to the way we locate foreign domestic workers in our political economy. There are multiple actions that need to be taken. These include:
1. Ensuring that domestic workers get a weekly day off — this allows them social opportunities to learn more about their rights and utilise communication channels to voice complaints;
2. Moving toward a “zero recruitment cost for workers” paradigm. The International Labour Organisation has called for all recruitment cost to be borne by employers.
3. Including domestic workers within the scope of the Employment Act so that there are clear limits to the maximum number of working hours they should be doing, thus ensuring that they are not overworked. If a worker does overtime work, she should be compensated accordingly, thus giving her the resources to buy extra food herself.
That said, monitoring the application of the Employment Act within a home environment will present huge challenges. This is why TWC2 envisages a future wherein domestic workers should be staying outside in hostels and dormitories, the same way non-domestic workers are housed. It makes it easier to assert their right to their own free time. The much greater freedom of movement workers will have as a result also improves their access to communication and complaint mechanisms. They will also enjoy the freedom of choice when it comes to their meals.