From TWC2 members’ newsletter, Sept-Oct 2009:

Sometimes TWC2 has calls about domestic workers who don’t get enough food to eat. There are not many – just eight last year, for example – but we know other organisations receive similar calls. This is a serious type of abuse and so even a small number of cases is cause for concern. Typically, the underfed women are kept under very restrictive conditions. They have no days off and are prevented from communicating freely with the outside world. If they go out at all, it is only under the strict control of a member of their employer’s family. We usually hear about them indirectly. Sometimes, a worker has appealed to a person from a neighbouring household for food, saying that she is hungry. Usually, she asks for food, not for intervention. This is because obtaining food meets her immediate needs without resulting in a confrontation with her employers that could result in physical or verbal abuse or in her losing her job. So in one recent case, we heard of a worker who was employed in a house, and who went at an agreed time to a point in its garden that was not visible from the building, where a sympathetic local handed food through the fence. The worker asked for nothing more. In other cases, people have supplied food to workers a few times before contacting us about the situation. For example, recently a neighbour called us after the worker’s employer discovered that she had been giving food to her worker. The angry employer told her to keep out of her domestic situation and said that her family could take care of feeding the worker.

Denying workers enough food probably seems to most people like such an extraordinary form of mistreatment that they are at a loss to understand how anyone can behave in such a way. Why do some employers keep workers so hungry that their weight falls and they feel permanently tired and lacking in energy? They offer no explanations for what they do: if they don’t refuse to give answers, they claim that the worker was well fed, or that she had plenty of food but didn’t eat it. Their behaviour seems to express their money-minded approach to the workers: they want the maximum work from them at the minimum cost. This conclusion is supported by testimonies from the workers concerned who, in our experience, practically always face other forms of abusive behaviour besides this.

Providing ‘adequate food’ for a worker is a legal requirement. The work permit conditions laid down under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (Chapter 91A) stipulate: ‘The employer shall be responsible for and bear the costs of the worker’s upkeep and maintenance. This includes the provision of adequate food, as well as medical treatment.’

What ‘adequate food’ means is not defined. A basic starting point might be that the worker should be provided with enough food to sustain her body weight and general health.

TWC2 understands there is a difficulty here. We encountered it in 2003 when The Working Committee Two (the predecessor of TWC2) was writing the text of a draft Foreign Domestic Workers’ Bill. We said that the employer should provide the worker with ‘sufficient and proper meals’. This phrasing at least suggested that the minimum standard ought to be higher than simply providing food that was adequate in quantity to keep a worker healthy. The word ‘proper’ indicates that the meals should not be just someone else’s leftovers, or a daily diet of rice and cheap green vegetables. Now we would go further than this: we believe that it is necessary to say that the food should be nutritious and varied. We think that the work permit requirements should be amended to include this point.

A further issue is that of enforcement. When employers who keep their workers hungry try to cut them off from the outside world, it is a sure sign that they know what they are doing is wrong. As we have argued on many occasions, a weekly day off is an essential element in countering abuse; a worker whose right to go out regularly was strictly enforced would be able to seek help, complain or leave her abusive employer within a week of problems starting, thus avoiding the worsening of her position. We are critical of the basis of the existing requirement for workers to have six monthly medical check-ups, but while this exists, we suggest that it be taken as an opportunity to see whether there are any signs that workers are facing abusive treatment. We raised this issue in connection with physical abuse in 2003, and we understand that a letter was circulated to doctors at that time to point out that they had a responsibility to report signs of abuse if they observed them during check-ups. We suggest that doctors should see a drastic fall in weight or other evidence of inadequate diet as a cause for concern that ought to be reported to the Ministry of Manpower. Giving workers too little food may not be one of the most widespread abuses, but our view is that it is completely unacceptable and must stop.