Questions and common defences for existing treatment of foreign domestic workers by their employers and TWC2’s responses:

1. Don’t most domestic workers agree to the conditions they work under? If a woman has signed a contract with the employer that says that she agrees to have no time off for two years, how can anyone object that it is unfair?

Workers often don’t really have freedom of choice when they are seeking employment.

Many young women who are recruited to be domestic workers are deliberately given a false impression of the conditions they should expect when they come to Singapore by their recruiters. They are often led to believe that pay levels are higher than they really are, and that they will have time off and generally good conditions. For many, the reality is a disappointment, but once they have come, it is too late to back out. They try to make the best of it.

Workers often say that employment agents tell them that if they refuse to accept the conditions employers want, they won’t be employed and then they will be sent back to their own countries. This is a threat that they cannot take lightly. Women normally go into debt to pay the various charges levied by their governments and by agents before they begin earning money. In 2011, a Filipina worker on a salary of $360 a month would take at least six months to repay her placement costs. Indonesians are paid less and take eight to nine months to pay their placement costs. This is one respect in which conditions have got worse over the years: the debt period was around three months in 1997. Workers do not want to risk being sent home carrying this debt burden and having earnt nothing for their families and so they ‘consent’ to terms they don’t want. This is not an act of free choice, but the outcome of economic disadvantage and disempowerment.

2. What right do maids have to complain about conditions here when they are better off than in their own countries?

There are valid reasons to take complaints seriously:

  • In most areas of life, Singapore measures its achievement against the most advanced and highest standards in the world: why, when it comes to foreign domestic workers, should we choose to measure our own standards by those of less developed countries with fewer protections for their own labour forces?
  • We have our own ideas on what is fair and humane treatment. We know what conditions we would find unacceptable for ourselves. This is what we should bear in mind when thinking about the treatment of foreign workers on Singapore’s soil.
  • How would we feel if Singaporeans who went to work in a richer country were paid at lower rates than locals, on the grounds that ‘they are better off than at home’?
  • Our own country’s population is mostly made up of people whose ancestors migrated in search of work paid at rates that they could not find at home; sometimes they could not find work at home at all. When we learn about this, most of us feel great sympathy for them; we respect those who fought to improve their conditions and we are glad that we do not face such conditions. We should therefore be more understanding of others who, in our own times, have had to migrate in search of work.
  • This question makes a questionable assumption: that foreign domestic workers are better off here than at home. That’s certainly not true in the case of workers whose employers cheat them of their pay by not giving them what they are due, making hefty deductions for supposed costs and breakages, and sending them out of the country without their final payments.

If a worker has been persuaded by a recruiter to go to work abroad by being promised conditions that are much better than those she finds when she arrives at her destination, she may not feel that she is better off. For a salary that is less than she thought she’d receive, she is often expected to work far longer and harder than at home, manage without the support of family and friends and accept severe restrictions on her freedom of movement: only the necessity of paying back money that she owes and of supporting her family makes her accept such conditions.

If a domestic worker had a salary of $250 a month and worked eight hours a day, for six days a week, that would work out at a rate of less than $1.25 an hour in a typical month, but there can be hardly any who do work such hours. Much more standard is a working day of over 12 hours, often up to 15 or 16.

3.  Why does TWC2 go on about the rights of maids? What about those of employers?

TWC2 wants a fair deal for employers and we have said this quite clearly. When an employer is told that the domestic worker s/he is considering taking on is properly trained in the main areas of the work she will be asked to do, that ought to be true. Agencies that deliberately and persistently mislead would-be employers about that deserve to be penalised. Employers have valid cause for complaint if their workers mistreat dependents who have been entrusted to their care, steal from them, or bring strangers into the family home without the consent of their employers.

That said, it has to be recognised that the relationship between employers and domestic workers is fundamentally unequal: it is the employers who chiefly determine how much the workers are paid, how long they work, what types of work they perform, when and if they are able to leave the work premises and what they have to eat; some even insist on controlling communication with friends and family and setting down rules about what their workers can wear. Domestic workers have no such say in their employers’ lives; they are disempowered and inadequately protected under the law as it stands. So if TWC2 is ‘unbalanced’ in its approach to the issue of foreign domestic workers, it is because it has to be: Singaporeans and foreign workers are not on a ‘level playing field’.

4. What are the minimum conditions that TWC2 thinks domestic workers should have?

Beyond what exists at present, the legal minimum should include:

  • an entitlement to one day off every week, including the right to leave the workplace;  no other measure could more rapidly and decisively improve the position of foreign domestic workers. It would give them time for rest and recreation; they could seek help and advice. This would be the most effective measure to counter ‘maid abuse’, as there would be more opportunities than at present for early reporting and preventive action; furthermore, it would also provide a means of defusing the tensions and stresses that have led to some workers taking out their frustrations on dependents left in their care.
  • eight unbroken hours of time to rest and sleep every working day;
  • a living space where she can have privacy. It should include a bed of her own.

We believe that a minimum wage should be set and apply across the board, irrespective of the nationality of the worker. It has been argued that Singapore does not have a minimum wage for other categories of employee, and so it should not adopt one for domestic workers. We consider that the salary paid to most domestic workers is so low – far less than that paid to almost any other category of worker – that making an exception to existing practice is well justified. Moreover, though it might be argued that it would be a break with previous policy in Singapore on the question of a minimum wage, in practice, it would not have a big impact on other economic sectors simply because none of them pay wages that fall below those of the better paid domestic workers. The habit of expecting to pay workers different levels of salary according to their national origins is wrong in principle: payment ought to be standard for the job that is undertaken on Singapore’s territory, without discrimination by nationality among foreign workers. It is unjust to act otherwise and is bound to create resentment among those who feel most disadvantaged by the practice.

Beyond these legal minimum conditions, we hope to see further improvement as a matter of  consideration and social convention: more time being given for rest and recreation, greater politeness towards workers, more sensitivity towards their religious beliefs and cultural practices.

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

See also: Fact sheet: Foreign domestic workers in Singapore (complaints and abuses)