What are the main complaints made by foreign domestic workers?

Complaints vary to some extent, according to nationality. A 2005 survey of 115 Indonesian domestic workers who had worked in Singapore found that more than two-thirds complained of limited access to information and communication with other people, not being allowed to go outside, not having enough time to rest and having a heavy workload, but the most common complaint, in 80 per cent of cases, was having no time off. (A. Savitri Wisnuwardani, Alb. Bambang Buntoro, Mulyadi, Sri Palupi: Problems Faced by Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore: Data and Facts. Working Forum on Justice for Migrant Domestic Workers (FOKER), Working Team on Record and Information, Institute for Ecosoc Rights)

This corresponds roughly with what TWC2 and other groups have found in conversation with Indonesian domestic workers. Most of their counterparts from the Philippines, by contrast, have a regular day off, so the issue tends to have a lower priority for them.

When domestic workers are beaten or hit by employers (‘maid abuse’), it is usually well reported in the media. This can give the impression that violence at the hands of employers is widespread and that it is the No. 1 problem faced by foreign domestic workers. This is not the case. The great majority of employers do not use violence against their workers, and many have a harmonious relationship with them, but complaints about long hours, not having time off and being overworked are common.

In conversation with foreign domestic workers, TWC2 has also found that many have experienced what we have called ‘quiet indignities’: being taken to a restaurant by a family, but only to look after their children; being talked about in their presence by employers who tell friends about how ‘stupid’ or ‘clumsy’ they are; being issued a string of orders without any ‘please’ or ‘thank-you’ – this kind of treatment.

Our helpline, operating since December, 2006, has generally found difficulties with transferring from one employer to another, salary complaints (non-payment or underpayment) and repatriation issues (being told illegally that they have to pay for their own return home, being forced to leave) among the main complaints from year to year.

Is ‘maid abuse’ (violence against foreign domestic workers) a serious problem?

Ministry of Manpower (MOM) statistics suggest that the level of serious violence against domestic workers is falling. The number of ‘maid abuse’ cases found to be substantiated in recent years was:

1997: 157
1998: 89
1999: 82
2000: 87
2001: 41
2002: 43
2003: 70
2004: 59
2005: 59
2006: 42
2007: 68
2008: 53

(Figures for 1997-2004 from Marcel Lee Pereira, ‘Maid abuse cases declining’, ‘Straits Times, 25th November 2005; those for 2005-2008 from a special report by Theresa Tan in ‘Straits Times, 25th November 2005. They appear in a chart headed ‘Looking Better’)

While these figures may reflect a downward trend, they do not tell the whole story. In some cases, domestic workers claim that they have been abused, but the police find insufficient evidence to go ahead with a case: there may be no marks visible by the time the worker is able to report what has happened to her, and then it may be a matter of her word against those of her employer and members of the employer’s family.

Some domestic workers who have experienced abuse do not report it to the authorities. They may have had bad experiences with the police in their home countries and do not trust the authorities here to treat them fairly. Some, knowing that the investigation and prosecution of a legal action can take months, decide to drop the issue and either find another employer or return home. They feel they cannot afford to wait without money to send home. In all of these cases, abuse has happened but does not become part of the official statistics.

Although this means that the MOM statistics underestimate the extent of the problem, it seems clear that the great majority of Singapore employers do not use violence against their domestic workers. Surveys of workers’ complaints conducted here and in Indonesia in 2003-2005, as well as records of complaints to the workers’ embassies in Singapore suggest that other problems are much more widespread.

‘Maid abuse’ remains an issue because it still happens, appalling though it is to most people.

The term itself bears thinking about. In society as a whole, it is generally accepted that abuse of a child or wife, for example, may include the infliction of emotional, psychological and sexual harm, along with or even without physical violence. Somehow, when it comes to foreign domestic workers, there’s a tendency to apply different standards and definitions. It is because the term ‘maid abuse’ is restricted, in common usage, to the description of physical violence that it can be confidently said to be in decline. If it was widened to include all the kinds of treatment recognised as abusive when applied to other groups and individuals, the picture would seem more disturbing.

See also: Fact sheet: Foreign domestic workers in Singapore (basic statistics)

See also: Where we stand on fair treatment of foreign domestic workers