On Tuesday, 23 February 2021, Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, pleaded guilty to 28 charges including culpable homicide against her domestic worker, Piang Ngaih Don from Myanmar. She also pleaded guilty to voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, voluntarily causing hurt by a heated substance and wrongful restraint, among others. A further 87 charges will be considered in sentencing.

See the story in Channel NewsAsia: Woman admits killing maid; starved her to 24kg and assaulted her almost daily in ‘utterly inhumane’ case

The maid did not have a day off and was not allowed to have a mobile phone.

She began working in Singapore for this employer in May 2015 and the daily abuse began almost immediately. Eventually, she died some time in the night between 25 and 26 July 2016.

A similar case from 2003, the death of Indonesian domestic worker Muawanatul Chasanah, was the major stimulus that led to the founding of Transient Workers Count Too. That another death can happen so recently tells us that progress has been limited.

Singapore’s live-in requirement for domestic workers is a major factor in their vulnerability. They are under constant watch — in this case, Piang Ngaih Don was under closed-circuit television monitoring — and they can easily be denied phones and days off.

Without days off, they have no way to develop friendships and support circles, so that even if they had a phone, they might know no one they could trust to call for help.

Living out must be the aim

Singapore should move to live-out arrangements for domestic workers as the legal standard. Domestic workers should have their own quarters, e.g. hostels, separate from the household where they work. The accommodation should be paid for by their employers, but employers should not have control or access to these quarters.

Besides the obvious benefit of living out — sustained abuse cannot happen within closed doors from which a worker cannot escape if she gets to leave the place of employment at the end of every shift — there are many other advantages for everyone involved.

1. It would be easier to ensure that domestic workers have defined working hours just like any other worker. She comes in at a certain time and leaves at a certain time.

2. If she works more than the standard hours, it can be recorded and she should be entitled to overtime pay.

3. If there is any abuse while she is in the household, she has the opportunity to speak to friends, help organisations and authorities privately outside working hours.

4. She has privacy to communicate with her family and enjoy her own social circle. This makes for better psychosocial wellbeing.

5. The family that employs her also has privacy during her off-duty hours.

In any case, nearly all Singapore homes are not built for housing domestic workers. That is why we hear about deplorable living conditions, even situations where the domestic worker has to sleep in the kitchen or living room, or she has to share a room with a teenage boy — neither boy nor worker would be happy. See our report: Foreign domestic workers’ living conditions survey – full results

We have mentioned to architects and developers that condominiums, for example, could have additional blocks within the compound to house the residents’ domestic workers. After all, in designing condos we take a lot of trouble to build car parks, but we don’t provide for domestic workers. This reflects warped priorities — how we accommodate our cars is far more important than how we house and treat domestic workers.

In addition, there should be hostels for women built around various town centres.

One great benefit of housing domestic workers outside households is that we can then reconceptualise the work relationships.

Currently, our regulations require a foreign domestic worker to be exclusive to the household that employs her, bringing with it the virtually universal arrangement of them living in the same households where they work. Deploying her to work in a different household is illegal.

In practice, many households don’t have enough work for a fulltime domestic worker, but they have to bear the cost of one. Meanwhile, other households in need of part-timers (e.g. clean the home and do the ironing twice a week) find themselves with no affordable option.

In short, our domestic worker policy forces onto Singaporeans an all-or-nothing choice.

Once live-out accommodation becomes available to domestic workers, they can become formal employees of house-support enterprises. Householders sign contracts with the enterprises who then provide, say, a worker to come in once, twice or thrice a week. The same worker can thus serve a number of households and increase her productivity.

Households who don’t need home help fulltime may save money too. This is a much more flexible arrangement that will leave a lot of people happy.

At the other end of the needs spectrum would be households that need help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Perhaps there is a bedridden elder in the home in the last few months of his or her life. For this period, the household can contract with the enterprise to provide three workers doing three different shifts.

Currently, too many households expect one domestic worker to be on duty around the clock. This by itself is abuse. Even if the household can afford three different maids, very few houses in Singapore have the room to house them all., making living arrangements a source of friction.

House-support enterprises can offer a range of workers with different skills. So, if the elderly person also has a need for medication and some exercising, one of the three workers could well be someone with necessary care-giving qualifications. Currently, we expect our domestic workers to be jacks of all trades, leaving some employers dissatisfied when she proves to be less adept than expected.

We should not only see abuse and homicide as the problem to be solved in isolation. At root, Singapore has designed a regulatory system that is inflexible and gives too much control to the employer. The lack of outside housing for female workers compounds the problem.

But even if we succeed in moving most domestic workers out, we should be clear-minded enough to know that it won’t entirely eradicate abuse. It can still happen during working hours and workers can still keep it to themselves and suffer in silence. Why that is so will be discussed in Commentary 2. Click here.