Migrant Women Face Debt Burden and Exploitation
December 8, 2005
Many domestic workers labor without pay for months to settle debts to employment agencies, work long hours seven days a week, or are confined to their workplace.
Ken Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

(Singapore) - Women migrant domestic workers in Singapore suffer grave abuses including physical and sexual violence, food deprivation, and confinement in the workplace, said Human Rights Watch in a new report released today.

At least 147 migrant domestic workers have died from workplace accidents or suicide since 1999, most by jumping or falling from residential buildings. Migrant domestic workers earn half the wages of Singaporean workers in similar occupations, such as cleaners or gardeners. Unpaid wages is a growing complaint.

“Many domestic workers labor without pay for months to settle debts to employment agencies, work long hours seven days a week, or are confined to their workplace,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Singapore’s refusal to extend ordinary labor protections to domestic workers is leaving them open to abuse.”

The 124-page report, “Maid to Order: Ending Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore,” is based on more than one hundred in-depth interviews with domestic workers, government officials, and employment agents. It details a range of abuses endured by domestic workers in Singapore and the response of the Singaporean government.

Families in Singapore employ approximately 150,000 women, primarily from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, as domestic workers. Human Rights Watch said the Singaporean government has instituted some encouraging reforms in the past two years. These include creating mandatory orientation programs for employers and domestic workers, prosecuting cases of unpaid wages and physical abuse, and introducing an accreditation program for employment agencies.

But key labor conditions, such as wages, hours of work, and salary deductions are left to employers and agencies, while domestic workers have little or no bargaining power. Human Rights Watch said that authorities have excluded domestic workers from the country's main labor laws. Starting in January, domestic workers signing new contracts will be entitled to a single day off a month.

But key labor conditions, such as wages, hours of work, and salary deductions are left to employers and agencies, while domestic workers have little or no bargaining power. Human Rights Watch said that authorities have excluded domestic workers from the country's main labor laws. Starting in January, domestic workers signing new contracts will be entitled to a single day off a month.

“One day off a month is a poor solution,” said Roth. “Domestic workers deserve a weekly rest day and protection under Singapore’s Employment Act like other workers.”

Singapore imposes a monthly levy on employers of migrant domestic workers to regulate demand. Employers pay S$200-295 [U.S.$118-174] to a central government fund each month, more than the wages of many domestic workers themselves. None of these funds, roughly S$360-531 million (U.S.$212-313 million), are earmarked for services geared toward migrant domestic workers.

Intense competition among the more than six hundred employment agencies has led them to shift the cost of recruitment, transportation, training, and placement from employers to domestic workers. To pay for these charges, many domestic workers labor for 4-10 months with little or no pay. Some employment agencies fail to provide assistance in cases of employer abuse, sink domestic workers deeper into debt by overcharging those who transfer employers, and confiscate religious items such as prayer garments and holy books.

To control illegal immigration, the Singapore government imposes a security bond on each employer, who forfeits S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950] if their domestic worker runs away. Immigration regulations prohibit domestic workers from becoming pregnant. Human Rights Watch said that these policies become incentives for employers to tightly restrict domestic workers' movements to prevent them from running away or having boyfriends. For example, some employers prevent domestic workers from having weekly rest days, forbid them from talking to neighbors, and sometimes lock them in the workplace. Heavy debts and confinement at home mean that some domestic workers cannot escape serious workplace abuses.

“I was not allowed to go outside. I never went outside, not even to dump the garbage…,” said Sri Mulyani (not her real name), a domestic worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch. “I felt like I was in jail. It was truly imprisonment…. I could only see the outside world when I hung clothes to dry.”

Roth said, “In the same way that the government has pursued employers who beat their domestic workers, officials must tackle agencies that charge workers ten months of their salaries and employers who confine domestic workers to the workplace.”

Given their isolation in private homes, it is difficult to ascertain the exact proportion of migrant domestic workers who face abuse. The Indonesian embassy estimates that it receives fifty complaints per day, mostly from domestic workers. The Philippines embassy and the Sri Lanka High Commission estimate receiving forty to eighty complaints from domestic workers per month. Human Rights Watch said that many abuses are likely never reported, especially if an employer repatriates a domestic worker before she has a chance to seek help.

Singapore's laws and regulations offer stronger protection than do those of neighboring countries such as Malaysia. Singapore is still far behind Hong Kong, which includes domestic workers in its main labor laws, protecting their rights to a weekly rest day, a minimum wage, maternity leave, public holidays, and paid annual leave.

Human Rights Watch urged the Singapore government to provide comprehensive protections to migrant domestic workers by amending the Employment Act and regulating charges imposed by agencies so that migrant domestic workers do not spend 4-10 months working off their debts. Singapore should consider adjusting the monthly levy to offset the cost to employers.

“In a country well-known for strictly enforcing laws to promote order and efficiency, the failure to provide adequate and equal protection to an entire class of workers is an anomaly,” said Roth. “By implementing comprehensive reforms, Singapore could become a standard-setter in the region for migrant domestic workers.”

Select testimonies from domestic workers in Singapore featured in the report:

Sometimes there was not enough food….. They bought food from outside, but not for me. When angry, [the employer] would throw my food in the rubbish….. I was very scared. My employer told me, “Tomorrow you have a punishment, no eating.”….I took my bag, I ran ran ran. I called my sister, “I’m hungry and my employer is no good. If I stay long, I think I’d go to the hospital.” I want to eat everyday, I want to eat enough.
—Adelyn Malana (not her real name), domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, February 21, 2005

I was afraid if I ran away, I would be caught by police. Madam often got angry with me, complained to the agency, and the agency also got angry with me. [The agent asked] “What do you want?” I said, “I want to die, ma’am, because the people here are cruel, everything I do is wrong, I’m always called idiot and stupid.”
[It got so bad,] I really didn’t know what to do, so I drank poison for rats and cockroaches. I lost consciousness, and Madam brought me to the hospital…. When the incident happened, I had been working exactly seven months. I had earned S$90 [U.S.$53].
—Muriyani Suharti (not her real name), domestic worker, age twenty-two, Singapore, March 8, 2005

The employer would get angry…. If she was very angry, she would slap me many times. I hadn’t finished my contract yet. She said I couldn’t go home. I couldn’t tolerate it. When I told the agent the employer had slapped me, she just said, “you must suffer. You should control your feelings.” If a maid hasn’t finished her salary deduction, and she calls the agent, the agent is angry. The agent also slapped me; they didn’t want me to leave without finishing the contract and the salary deduction.
—Wati Widodo (not her real name), domestic worker, age twenty, March 10, 2005