A couple is currently on trial in Singapore for allegedly starving their domestic worker to the point where she weighed only 29 kilograms (64 pounds). The domestic worker, Thelma Gawidan, who is from the Philippines, says she endured more than a year of subsisting on instant noodles and bread, long working hours – sometimes exceeding 24 hours at a time – and humiliating treatment, such as being forbidden from bathing or brushing her teeth regularly.
Such cases of egregious abuse of migrant domestic workers in Singapore are nothing new. I wrote a Human Rights Watch report exactly 10 years ago, Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore, which detailed how gaps in Singapore’s laws and practices allowed mistreatment like food deprivation, confinement in the workplace, unpaid wages, and verbal and physical abuse to flourish.
Singapore has made changes since then, but still lags behind other countries in other respects. Ten years ago, Singapore completely excluded domestic workers from even basic labor law protection, with no guarantees for rest days and no limits on recruitment fees that left workers deeply indebted. After growing exposure and activism by domestic workers’ groups, journalists, and activists such as HOME Singapore and TWC2 – not to mention the bad publicity after more than 150 domestic workers fell to their deaths from tall buildings, mostly from suicide or risky work assignments cleaning windows or hanging clothes – the government introduced some reforms.
Today, Singapore’s migrant domestic workers are entitled to a weekly day of rest and have their recruitment fees capped at two months’ salary, but employers and employment agencies often find ways to skirt these rules. Singapore has also improved the ways workers can lodge complaints against their employers and has publicized prosecutions of employers who mistreat their domestic workers.
However, cases of exploitation regularly occur, and Singapore has rejected repeated calls to include domestic workers in its main labor code, which would ensure limits to their working hours and the range of basic protections that other workers receive. Singapore was one of nine countries globally that did not support the International Labor Organization’s 2011 Domestic Workers Convention, which has spurred more than 30 countries to improve their laws protecting this often marginalized and exploited group.
Singaporean authorities have charged Gawidan’s employers, Lim Choon Hong and Chong Sui Foon, with one offense under the Employment of Foreign Workers Act, and they face up to 12 months in prison and a S$10,000 (US$7,100) fine. But these charges hardly seem commensurate to the abuse Gawidan alleges.
It’s time for Singapore to include domestic workers under its main labor code, ensure restitution to those who suffer abuse, strengthen relationships with migrant domestic workers’ organizations, and punish abuse of migrant workers. The prosecution of Gawidan’s employers shows both the changes that have taken place and how much more needs to be done.