16 June 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the adoption of ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention (C189) which sets international standards of decent work for domestic workers. The C189 is currently in force in 21 countries[1] (International Labour Organization, n.d.). The adoption of C189 is significant because it ensures that the same basic labour rights that apply to workers in general apply to workers who care for families and households. Prior to this, there were no protection nor international benchmarks on the employment standards for paid domestic work despite being a significant source of employment for millions of women globally especially those from developing countries. Singapore is one of the key destinations for migrant domestic workers. As of the end of December 2015, there were 231,500 domestic workers in Singapore primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India (Ministry of Manpower, 2016). Employment arrangements and standards for domestic workers working in Singapore are governed by the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act and the Employment Agencies Act. Domestic workers are not covered by the Employment Act or the national labour legislation which sets minimum standards for basic employment terms for all employees under a contract of service in Singapore[2]. This means there is no regulation on the number of hours of work, overtime compensation, paid annual leave and sick leave for domestic workers. The absence of such a regulation has made domestic workers vulnerable to being exploited.

On this day, we call upon the Singapore government and the governments of sending countries of domestic workers to ratify the C189 and take measures to improve laws, step up enforcement of existing legislation that serve to protect domestic workers and clean up recruitment processes for domestic workers[3].  This is so that that domestic workers can be given basic employment rights equal to that of other workers and be free from the shackles of forced labour attributed primarily to the debt they take on to pay off exorbitant recruitment fees and an inflexible work permit system that leave them subservient to a particular employer as domestic workers cannot seek another employer without the written consent of their current employer. By ratifying the C189, the Singapore government would also be obligated to allow domestic workers to choose to live out of employers’ homes. This would certainly go a long way to improve the welfare and well-being of migrant domestic workers as a lack of a clear separation between work space and personal space has led many domestic workers to be overworked and suffer exploitation and abuse in silence as employers confine domestic workers to their homes and restrict their movements and contact with the outside world.

Over the decades of opening its doors to migrant domestic workers, Singapore has taken some steps to improve the employment terms and welfare and well-being of domestic workers. However, research and our experience managing cases and running a helpline for domestic workers show that domestic workers are still vulnerable to being exploited and mistreated. Despite a weekly day off being made mandatory in Singapore in January 2013, a study conducted by TWC2 on the effectiveness of the day off legislation released last year show that 59% of domestic workers in Singapore are still denied the basic employment right of a weekly day off (Transient Workers Count Too, 2015). Among those who had a weekly day off it is common that they be expected to complete morning household chores before leaving for their day off and to be expected to be back in time to prepare dinner (Transient Workers Count Too, 2015). Another study conducted last year by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) revealed that about 24% of domestic workers have poor mental health which is significantly higher than the national average of 12% of the population (HOME, 2015). Some of the factors identified as posing great risk for the mental well-being of domestic workers are communication break down due to language barriers, physical and verbal abuse by employers and invasions of privacy and restrictions on communications (HOME, 2015).

Preliminary findings of another study on recruitment fees conducted by TWC2 in 2015 among workers who get a day off show that there has not been any improvement on access to day off during the loan repayment period when the results are compared with a similar study conducted in 2010 with slightly more than half of the workers surveyed indicated that they were not allowed a day off during the loan repayment period. Domestic workers take 5 to 7 months to service off recruitment fee loans. The most common grievance expressed by domestic workers through our helpline and those that we have sheltered is mistreatment which includes strict restrictions on communication with family and the outside world, not having access to adequate food, verbal and emotional abuse. Another common grievance is long hours of work and the stress experienced from dealing with difficult and demanding employers. One other commonly expressed grievance is not having access to their monthly pay as employers take it upon themselves to withhold salaries for safekeeping, an arrangement that is often decided by the employment agency and the employer with the worker not having much of a say on the matter.

In the past two years, TWC2 has been marking the day of the adoption of the C189 by organising an event with its domestic workers affiliate groups, the Filipino Family Network (FFN) and the Indonesian Family Network (IFN). We think it is apt to mark the day as it resonates with our core mission of advocating fairer treatment for migrant workers and championing for their welfare and well-being. This year, we will be holding an event at the Sports Hub to call for greater support for Work-Life Balance for domestic workers. The event hopes to reach out to 300 domestic workers to participate in Zumba, brisk walking and other activities to raise their awareness of the sports facilities and exercise classes at the Sports Hub. Through publicity, we also hope that members of the public will be more aware that many domestic workers in Singapore today are still denied of a basic employment right – a weekly day off that every worker in Singapore is entitled to without question. The event will be held on Sunday, 10 July after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan.


HOME. (2015, March 8). HOME mental health survey. Retrieved June 15, 2016, from HOME: http://www.home.org.sg/home-mental-health-survey/

International Labour Organization. (n.d.). Ratifications of C189 – Domestic Worker Convention, 2011 (Number C189). Retrieved June 15, 2016, from International Lbaour Organization: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:11300:0::NO:11300:P11300_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460:NO

Manpower, M. o. (2015, August 24). Employment Act who it covers. Retrieved June 15, 2016, from Ministry of Manpower: http://www.mom.gov.sg/employment-practices/employment-act/who-is-covered

Ministry of Manpower. (2016, March 18). Foreign workforce numbers. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower: http://www.mom.gov.sg/documents-and-publications/foreign-workforce-numbers

Transient Workers Count Too. (2015, June 11). The right to rest: the effectiveness of the “Day Off” legislation for domestic workers. Retrieved June 15, 2016, from TWC2: http://twc2.sg/2015/06/11/the-right-to-rest-the-effectiveness-of-the-day-off-legislation-for-foreign-domestic-workers/

[1] 22 countries have ratified it but it will be in force in Portugal only on 17 July 2016

[2] Manager or executive with a basic salary monthly of more than $4,500, seafarer, statutory board employee or civil servants are also not covered by the act (Ministry of Manpower, 2015).

[3] Among key source countries of migrant domestic workers in Singapore, only the Philippines has ratified the convention.