Dr. Ng Eng Hen
Minister of Manpower
18 Havelock Road, #07-01
Dear Dr. Ng:
We are writing in response to the statements issued by the Ministry of Manpower regarding our recently published report, Maid to Order: Ending Abuses against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. These statements claim that the report "grossly exaggerates the abuse and lack of rights of foreign domestic workers in Singapore" and that these workers "receive full protection under Singapore's laws." We stand by our findings, for the reasons outlined below.
Our conclusions are based on extensive research and consultation. In addition to our own interviews and review of case studies of ninety domestic workers, we drew upon information provided by the governments of Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. We interviewed employment agents, employers, and aid organizations. Based on this wide-ranging research, we are confident that the abuses documented in our report reflect systematic patterns of mistreatment and not mere isolated cases. We shared our main findings a month before the release of the report with the Singapore government and incorporated the replies provided by the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs. We conducted our research and published our report in a constructive spirit and believe our recommendations can complement and improve upon the measures taken by the Singapore government to date.
Our report acknowledges the positive steps that Singapore has taken in recent years to curb abuses against migrant domestic workers, such as the prosecutions of employers who beat or fail to pay domestic workers, orientation programs for new employers and domestic workers, and an accreditation program for employment agencies. Human Rights Watch also acknowledges the recent positive reform requiring employers to pay domestic workers at least once a month. But gaps in legal protections for domestic workers continue to exist, with the result that significant numbers of domestic workers in Singapore continue to confront abuse.
Exclusion from the Employment Act
Contrary to your ministry’s statement, domestic workers do not receive equal protection under Singapore's labor laws. Although domestic workers are covered under the Employment of Foreign Workers Act (EFWA), they are excluded from Singapore's main labor law, the Employment Act. EFWA does not provide the same level or specificity of protection as the Employment Act. For example, EFWA's provisions that an employer must ensure that workers are not ill-treated or exploited are vague in comparison to the Employment Act’s specific guarantees of the right to:
• A minimum of one rest day per week. This rest day should be a thirty-hour continuous period.
• A maximum of 44 work-hours per week, and provisions for overtime pay thereafter.
• Limits on salary deductions to 25 percent of a worker’s salary for a maximum of twelve months.
Currently, domestic workers do not have these rights under Singapore law.
Your ministry's statement noted that foreign domestic workers have the same right as any other worker to accept or reject the terms of employment offered to them, but that statement ignores these very different legal protections offered foreign domestic workers. The difference means that foreign domestic workers, among the most vulnerable employees in Singapore with the weakest bargaining power, may work under conditions that Singapore law rejects for virtually all other workers.
Other Problematic Laws and Policies
Our report also outlines several other causes for concern regarding domestic workers’ rights in Singapore.
• Discriminatory policies prohibiting female migrant workers from becoming pregnant, restricting their marriage rights, and excluding them from labor protections such as a weekly rest day, overtime, and limits on salary deductions affect all migrant domestic workers in Singapore.
• The S$5,000 security bond imposed on employers, which is forfeited if a domestic worker runs away, and the prohibition on becoming pregnant contribute to many employers placing tight restrictions on a domestic workers’ mobility. Although security bonds are required for other foreign workers, their effect is particularly insidious in the case of migrant domestic workers because of the incentive to employers to keep their workers confined in the home where they work. The resulting difficulties for migrant domestic workers to communicate with others or to report abuse increases the risk of their mistreatment. If one purpose of the security bond is to ensure that employers pay for their workers’ repatriation, its conditions of forfeiture should be limited to that purpose. Continuing to condition the bond on workers not running away encourages the kinds of severe restrictions on workers’ mobility that our report documented.
• The charges imposed on domestic workers by employment agencies, and the system of deducting a worker’s salary to repay these charges, are inadequately regulated and monitored. A domestic worker in Singapore typically works for four to ten months with little pay (S$10-25 per month) or no pay at all to repay the debts incurred from employment agencies. This system leaves domestic workers highly vulnerable to abuse, since they often fear severe consequences if they try to leave an abusive employer before paying off this debt.
• Employment agencies generally set salary guidelines based on nationality rather than skills or education – an overt form of discrimination that the government should end. In addition, domestic workers in Singapore often earn approximately half the wages of Singaporean workers in comparable occupations. Contrary to the government’s professed free-market philosophy, the government artificially drives down the wages of domestic workers by imposing a levy on employers. Thus, an employer who might be willing to pay S$600 a month for a domestic worker ends up paying S$200-295 of this amount to the government.
Our report also documents specific abuses against domestic workers. Human Rights Watch interviewed migrant women domestic workers who reported a range of abuses including physical and sexual violence, food deprivation, restrictions on their religious freedom, forced confinement, lack of rest days, unpaid wages and other abuse. At least 147 domestic workers have died as a result of workplace accidents and suicides since 1999. The Indonesian embassy receives almost fifty complaints a day from domestic workers. The Philippines embassy and the Sri Lanka High Commission receive between forty and eight complaints a month. High as these numbers are, they probably understate the problem because abuses may go unreported if a domestic worker is confined to the workplace or repatriated before she has a chance to make a complaint.
The Singapore government has repeatedly cited a 2003 survey by The Straits Times that 80 percent of domestic workers report being happy. The same survey found that only 57 percent of those interviewed were provided a bed and mattress by their employer and that only half received a day off, and then, usually only once a month. In addition, it reported that most of those surveyed began work by 6am and finished work between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. The workers’ reported happiness thus seems to reflect extremely low expectations rather than the government’s guarantee of working conditions that are appropriate to an advanced economy like Singapore’s.
Response by the Singapore government
Our report acknowledges and commends many of the steps that the government has taken. However, as outlined above and in the report, more action is needed. Extending the protections of the Employment Act to domestic workers, regulating salary deductions and charges imposed by employment agencies, and removing policies that provide incentives for employers to restrict domestic workers to the workplace are important reforms that have yet to take place. In addition, the Singapore government could establish and periodically review a national minimum wage, a policy that would minimize the wage disparity between local and foreign workers and accomplish the same effect as the levy on employers of foreign domestic workers.
These findings and recommendations are explained and supported in greater detail in the full report.
We hope to have the opportunity to meet with you and other representatives of Singapore’s government to discuss these issues. Singapore has taken some important steps toward protecting migrant domestic workers, but it can and must go further to prevent and respond effectively to abuse. With these reforms, and with the administrative and legal capacity that your country has demonstrated in many other areas, Singapore can become a model for other countries.
Human Rights Watch
Women's Rights Division
Human Rights Watch