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Legal Framework for Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore

The primary sources of law regulating migrant domestic work in Singapore are the Employment of Foreign Workers Act and the Employment Agencies Act. Foreign workers enter Singapore through three types of work passes: an “employment pass” for professionals and highly-skilled workers, an “S-pass” for middle-level workers such as technicians, and a “work permit” for unskilled or semi-skilled workers, including domestic workers. The Employment of Foreign Workers Act regulates work permit holders and their employers, requiring them to abide by a set of immigration and labor regulations. Singapore’s main labor laws, the Employment Act and the Workmen’s Compensation Act, exclude domestic workers from their protections, but apply to most other skilled and unskilled foreign workers.

Singapore’s regulations governing foreign domestic workers are stronger than those of neighboring Malaysia, where abuse is rampant, but far weaker than those of Hong Kong, the other major Asian destination for migrant domestic workers (see appendix A for a copy of Hong Kong’s standard employment contract).

Singapore has demonstrated concern about abuse of migrant domestic workers and responded with reforms. Singapore amended its Penal Code in 1998 to increase by 1.5 times the penalties applied to employers convicted of physical abuse, sexual abuse, or wrongful confinement of domestic workers. They have also introduced an accreditation program for employment agencies, orientation programs for new employers and new employees, and a new department in the Ministry of Manpower focusing on the wellbeing of migrant workers. The new Foreign Manpower Management Division (FMMD) has approximately one hundred staff addressing labor policy, complaints, and management. As will be discussed in a later section, the Singapore government has demonstrated an increased commitment to investigating and prosecuting cases of physical abuse and unpaid wages.

A distinct strength of Singapore’s system is that most policy authority related to migrant workers is concentrated in the Ministry of Manpower.  In other labor-receiving countries, for example, Malaysia, conflicting policies and poor coordination between the Ministry of Human Resources and the Department of Immigration result in significant protection gaps for abused migrant workers. Singapore’s system does not always work smoothly—one official from a sending country complained that within the Ministry of Manpower, “the Labor Relations Department and Work Permit Department don’t correlate information” causing problems when employers wish to repatriate their maids immediately and the embassy wants them to stay in the country to pursue complaints.63

Exclusion from Labor Laws

Despite the positive reforms detailed above, Singapore has failed to implement basic reforms critical for preventing and responding to problems such as inhumane working hours, unconscionably low wages, lack of weekly rest days, and unequal access to employment benefits.

As mentioned above, Singapore excludes domestic workers from the Employment Act, which protects labor rights such as a minimum of one rest day per week, a maximum of forty-four work hours per week, limits on salary deductions, and fourteen days of paid sick leave.64 Although domestic workers enter contractual agreements in which they exchange services in return for compensation, the Employment Act states:

“employee” means a person who has entered into or works under a contract of service with an employer…but does not include any seaman, domestic worker, or any person employed in a managerial, executive or confidential position…. 

“workman” means— (a) any person, skilled or unskilled, who has entered into a contract of service with an employer in pursuance of which he is engaged in manual labour, including any artisan or apprentice, but excluding any seaman or domestic worker….65

Singapore’s Workmen’s Compensation Act similarly excludes domestic workers from its provisions on compensation for workplace injuries and occupational illnesses. Though it has yet to do so, Singapore could extend equal employment protections to domestic workers easily under Part VII of the Employment Act, which states:

67. The Minister may, from time to time by notification in the Gazette, apply all or any of the provisions of this Act with such modification as may be set out in the notification to all domestic workers or to any group, class or number of domestic workers and may make regulations to provide generally for the engagement and working conditions of domestic workers.66

Singapore does not have a minimum wage, and this lack of regulation has a particularly profound impact on migrant domestic workers, many of whom have little ability to negotiate the terms of their employment. As will be discussed in the section “Low and Unequal Wages,” migrant domestic workers earn a fraction of the wages of Singaporean workers in comparable occupations such as gardening and cleaning. Industry standards assign different wages to domestic workers according to their national origin, with an Indian domestic worker often earning less than half the monthly wage of a Filipina domestic worker.

Government officials expressed skepticism about regulating domestic work with the standards applied to other sectors. One official asked, “how to calculate [overtime] when workers never leave the employment place?”67 Officials from the Ministry of Manpower told Human Rights Watch, “Wages for example, we leave to market forces….  The wages are low compared to U.S. wages, but high compared to home countries.”68

Singapore government officials also point to the existence of the Employment of Foreign Workers Act and the Employment Agencies Act, which do regulate the migrant domestic worker sector. The labor regulations outlined in those laws and related regulations (particularly work permit regulations), as discussed below, do not provide the same level of labor protections accorded by the Employment Act and Workmen’s Compensation Act. The Employment of Foreign Workers Act primarily addresses issues related to work permits, for example outlining a worker’s duties after the loss of a work permit and prohibiting employment without a valid work permit. This Act also limits migrant workers’ rights if the Controller of Work Permits changes the conditions, or suspends or cancels work permits. In such situations, migrant workers are prohibited from seeking any support from a trade union.69

The Singapore government regulates employment agencies through the Employment Agencies Act. The law regulates application, renewal, and revocation of licenses.70 Certain provisions protect the interests of clients, for example, an employment agent’s license may be revoked if he or she, “has carried on or is carrying on an employment agency in a manner likely to be detrimental to the interests of his clients.”71 Other provisions proscribe overcharging, deception, and trafficking.72

The Employment Agencies Act stipulates that employment agencies cannot charge job seekers more than 10 percent of their first month’s earnings—an amount ranging between S$20-40 [U.S.$12.50-25] for most migrant domestic workers. This law also provides that agencies cannot charge employers more than a S$5 [U.S.$3] registration fee and 80 percent of the worker’s first month’s earnings. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has enforced this law for foreign professionals and other skilled workers, but for foreign domestic workers has argued that the charges imposed by employment agencies are not agency fees, but instead private loans that fall outside of the law’s parameters. This distinction for costs associated with recruitment, airfare, and placement with employers is arbitrary and unfairly strips migrant domestic workers of important protections.

Work Permit Regulations

Work permit regulations under the Employment of Foreign Workers Act provide labor protections, though these are not as comprehensive as those in the Employment Act. Work permits for migrant domestic workers require employers to commit to paying all wages due a worker before her repatriation, keeping a written record of wages, providing acceptable accommodation and a safe working environment, and providing prior notice of termination. The employer must also agree to pay for repatriation costs of the worker, purchase a minimum S$10,000 [U.S.$5,900]73 personal injury insurance policy,  allow her to retain the original copy of her work permit, and to employ her only for domestic duties in the household registered for the permit.74

The Controller of Work Permits issued revisions to the work permit regulations in early 2005 that introduced new protections: employers are now required to pay domestic workers monthly, and the “employer shall ensure that the worker is not ill-treated, exploited, wilfully neglected or endangered.”75 The regulations state that breach of work permit conditions may result in prosecution, imprisonment for up to six months, a maximum fine of S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950], revocation of the work permit, and a prohibition from employing foreign domestic workers in the future.76

Domestic workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, and other low-wage migrant workers who enter Singapore on work permits do not enjoy the same freedoms and protections as professional and technical workers immigrating on work passes. The latter class of workers may bring their immediate family, enjoy most of the same freedoms and protections as Singaporean citizens, and can marry Singaporean citizens. Work permit holders may not bring family members with them and are barred from marrying Singaporeans. As discussed in more detail in the section, “Restrictions on Reproductive and Marriage Rights,” work permit conditions also prohibit migrant domestic workers from becoming pregnant and from “breaking up families” in Singapore.77

Work permit conditions require employers to take out a S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950] security bond to guarantee they will repatriate their domestic workers. The government justifies the security bond as a mechanism for minimizing the numbers of migrant workers who enter the country on work permits, run away from their jobs, and stay on in Singapore illegally. Employers forfeit the bond if their domestic worker runs away or if they fail to pay for the worker’s repatriation according to their obligations under work permit regulations. As will be discussed in the sections, “Lack of Rest Days,” and “Forced Confinement and Restricted Communication,” the threat of losing the security bond contributes to many employers denying domestic workers rest days and to their tightly controlling and restricting the workers’ movements.

A domestic worker’s work permit is tied to her employer. Employers have the power to repatriate a domestic worker at any time during the contract. They can also reject or approve a domestic worker’s wish to transfer employers in the middle or at the end of a two-year contract. As will be discussed in later sections, these policies foster a strong power imbalance, especially when domestic workers are under financial stress to repay their debts or earn money in Singapore. They may fear to report abuse as their employers can deny them transfers and repatriate them to their home country.

The Singapore government collects hundreds of millions of dollars annually by placing a monthly levy on employers of work permit holders.  It raises or decreases the levy to regulate the number of migrant workers in the country and to equalize wages between foreign workers and Singaporean workers.78 In 2005, the government reduced the levy from S$345 [U.S.$204] to S$295 [U.S.$174] per month per migrant domestic worker. These adjustments were included in a package of “family friendly” policies to help boost the national birthrate. Concessionary rates of S$200 [U.S.$118] are available for some categories of employers.

The monthly levy approximates and often exceeds the wages earned by the domestic worker herself. Although the government does not release official figures, it receives between S$360-531 million [U.S.$212-313 million] annually from levy payments by employers of migrant domestic workers. These funds go directly into a central government fund and are not earmarked for programs geared toward migrant domestic workers.

Recent Initiatives

In the wake of publicity surrounding several abuse cases and the rising death toll of migrant domestic workers falling to their deaths from tall apartment buildings, the Ministry of Manpower introduced several new initiatives in 2005. These policies aimed to improve the “quality” of foreign domestic workers employed in Singapore, to better regulate employment agencies, and to raise consciousness among employers and domestic workers about rights and responsibilities.

The new requirements encourage the recruitment of older, English-speaking, formally educated migrant domestic workers. These changes respond in part to concerns that some domestic workers younger than eighteen were entering the country with altered travel documents. Several abuse cases involved young domestic workers who had little information about their rights, and who had gone through employment agents that may have threatened and intimidated them. The Ministry of Manpower changed the minimum age of employment for a migrant domestic worker from eighteen to twenty-three. It also now requires domestic workers to possess at least eight years of formal education and to pass an English proficiency exam.

In order to raise awareness about safe working conditions and legal obligations, the Ministry of Manpower has published a guide for employers of migrant domestic workers.79 It has introduced two compulsory programs: an orientation for new employers, and a safety awareness seminar for all new migrant domestic workers. Employers can elect to complete the orientation program online, an option criticized by migrants’ rights advocates in Singapore. A Human Rights Watch researcher observed an orientation session and one of the employer seminars. In the orientation session, migrant domestic workers learned about work permit conditions and the types of work that an employer can ask of them. Much of the seminar for employers focused on safe workplace practices, for example how to hang wet clothes outside windows or operate electrical appliances. Employers learned about their legal obligations and acceptable employment practices. The discussion focused on improving communication and flexibility. Topics included explaining that employers cannot make deductions from domestic workers’ salaries as a punishment.

Another recent policy requires any employer who has cycled through five domestic workers in one year to attend an orientation. In 2004, the Ministry of Manpower said that approximately 3,000-4,500 employers change more than four domestic workers in one year.80 According to a policy introduced in 2004:

MOM [Ministry of Manpower] recognises that frequent changes of FDWs are often a reflection of the difficulty that an employer faces in managing FDWs….  Employers who change their FDW for 4 times in a 1-year period are issued with advisory letters. At the 5th change, employers are required to attend the Employers’ Orientation Programme (EOP) and go through a post-class session with the trainer. At the 6th change, employers are required to attend an interview with a MOM officer. If the pattern of changing FDWs continues further, MOM would reject the employer’s work permit application unless there are satisfactory explanations.81

These interventions are not strong enough to curb abuse. Waiting until an employer has employed five or six domestic workers within one year means that the intervention may come too late for several workers. The Ministry of Manpower’s policy does not call for interviews with former or current domestic workers who may be able to provide important information about why they were dismissed or transferred.

Finally, in 2004, the Ministry of Manpower began requiring that all new employment agencies and those seeking renewal of their licenses must be accredited. The Ministry of Manpower designated two organizations as accreditation bodies for employment agencies placing migrant domestic workers: the Association of Employment Agencies in Singapore (AEAS), comprised of employment agents, and CASETrust, a consumer rights group. Employment agencies must have a minimum amount of financial reserves, keep records about domestic worker placements available for inspection, and have protocols for handling disputes. Both accrediting bodies have created sample employment contracts. Provisions state the necessity of giving domestic workers adequate food, rest, and lodging, but do not provide specific guidelines on maximum hours of work, periods of continuous rest, or acceptable housing arrangements. At the time of this writing, standard contracts promoted by these two accrediting bodies left a blank for the number of rest days a domestic worker will receive per month. In many cases, employers just fill in a zero. A provision effective in 2006 will require at least one day off per month for new contracts, but this may be waived by offering extra compensation. The effectiveness of the accreditation scheme is discussed later in this report.

Unjustifiable Disparate Impact: Exclusion from Labor Protections

All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.
—Singapore Constitution, article 12(1)

Singapore’s Constitution and international law guarantee equality before the law and the entitlement of all persons to equal protection of the law.82 When domestic workers in Singapore, a population comprised overwhelmingly of foreign women, encounter exclusion from employment laws regulating working conditions, they are experiencing a form of discrimination, though not necessarily intentional, in violation of the national laws of Singapore. This discrimination also violates rights articulated in international human rights law.

Singapore has committed to uphold human rights protections defined in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).83 Singapore must ensure that domestic law and its enforcement comply with their international obligations to protect the rights of women. Although Singapore has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), or the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers Convention), these are important sources of international law and human rights standards.84 Some of their provisions reflect a significant degree of international consensus and evolving state practice. In this sense, they provide guidance on how Singapore might reformulate their legislation in respect to migrant domestic workers.

International law prohibits discrimination on the basis of such distinctions as sex, national or social origin, or other status.85  Article 3 of the ICESCR sets forth the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social, and cultural rights in the covenant, which includes the right to just and favorable conditions of work.86 These rights include “women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men,” and the right to “rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.”87

Singapore’s Employment Act and Workmen’s Compensation Act exclude domestic workers from many of the legal protections extended to other workers. These laws protect other work permit holders, including migrants working in construction and restaurants. The Employment of Foreign Workers Act and the Employment Agency Act, which apply to domestic workers, do not provide the same level or specificity of protection. These exclusions, while facially neutral in that they focus on a form of employment, may not be discriminatory in intent but have a disparate impact on women and foreigners since the overwhelming majority of domestic workers in Singapore are migrant women.  The lesser protection extended to domestic work reflects discrimination against a form of work usually performed by women and that involves tasks associated with traditional female domestic roles such as cleaning, child care, and cooking.

No legitimate reasons exist for these exclusions, meaning that the unequal protection of domestic workers under Singapore law constitutes impermissible disparate impact discrimination on the basis of sex and national origin.88 Arguments that domestic work does not lend itself to regulations on working hours and rest days do not address the need to protect domestic workers’ right to health and right to rest. These arguments, as well as fears that such regulations would be difficult to enforce, can be addressed by encouraging the formation of domestic workers’ associations, creating accessible complaint mechanisms, and learning from the experiences of governments that do extend labor protections to domestic workers, including Hong Kong.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomat from labor-sending country’s embassy, Singapore, February 2005.

[64] Employment Act (Chapter 91) of Singapore.

[65] Employment Act, part I, section 2. Emphasis added.

[66] Employment Act, part 67.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview with Kenneth Yap, Ng Cher Pong, Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, February 22, 2005.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Employment of Foreign Workers Act (Chapter 91A), part 9, section 4. This provision states:

The termination of the services of a foreign worker under subsection (1) shall not be —

(a) capable of negotiation with a trade union representing the foreign worker;

(b) a matter in respect of which any form of industrial action may be taken by any such trade union;

(c) the subject-matter of a trade dispute or of conciliation proceedings or any method of redress whether or not under any written law; and

(d) any industrial matter within the meaning of the Industrial Relations Act (Cap. 136).

[70] Licensing requirements include furnishing a security bond of S$20,000 [U.S.$12,500], paying an annual license fee of S$350 [U.S.$219], and having no previous court convictions.

[71] Employment of Foreign Workers Act, part 11, section 1c.

[72] Ibid., part 23-4. The law states: “Any licensee who — (a) charges or receives himself or through another person, for his services, any sum greater than the prescribed fee; (b) knowingly and voluntarily deceives any person by giving false information; (c) instigates or induces any person not to admit in his service any worker who has not applied for employment, work or position through his employment agency; or (d) knowingly sends, directs or takes any girl or woman to any place for immoral purposes or to a place where she is likely to be morally corrupted, shall be guilty of an offence.” Penalties include fines up to S$5,000 [U.S.$2,950] for repeat offenses and two years imprisonment for prostituting women.

[73] In this report, we used a currency conversion rate of S$1=U.S.$0.59, the rate on October 16, 2005.

[74] Ministry of Manpower, “Work Permit Application Form for a Domestic Worker, First Schedule, Conditions of Work Permit for Employer of Foreign Domestic Worker,” [online], (retrieved November 16, 2005).

[75] Ibid.

[76] E-mail correspondence from Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore to Human Rights Watch, November 11, 2005 and Ministry of Manpower, “A General Guide on Employment of Foreign Domestic Workers,” revised September 9, 2005 [online], (retrieved September 15, 2005).

[77] Ministry of Manpower, “Work Permit Application Form for a Domestic Worker, Fourth Schedule, Conditions of Work Permit/Visit Pass for Foreign Worker,” [online], (retrieved November 16, 2005).

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Ng Cher Pong, Kenneth Yap, and Wing Git Chan, Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore, November 2, 2005.

[79] Ministry of Manpower, “A General Guide on Employment of Foreign Domestic Workers,” revised September 9, 2005.

[80] Sim Chi Yin, “Changed Your Maid Five Times This Year?” The New Paper, September 3, 2004.

[81] E-mail correspondence from the Foreign Manpower Management Division, Ministry of Manpower, Singapore to Human Rights Watch, November 11, 2005.

[82] Singapore Const, art. XII, § 1 and Universal Declaration of Human Rights G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. GAOR, 3d. Sess., pt. 1 at 71, U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948), art. 7. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the precursor of important international treaties that set forth human rights. As a member of the United Nations, Singapore has committed to uphold the UDHR. See also, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art. 26.

[83] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), G.A. Res. 34/180, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, 1979, entered into force September 3, 1981, ratified by Singapore on October 5, 1995. Singapore entered a reservation to article 2, which prohibits discrimination against women, when it affects the practice of religious and personal laws. They also reserved the right to impose restrictions on the employment of women related to perceived health and safety concerns for pregnant women.

[84] CEDAW, art. 2; ICCPR, arts. 2 and 3; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), entered into force January 3, 1976, art. 2; Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Migrant Workers’ Convention), adopted on December 18, 1992, U.N. G.A. Res. 45/158, entered into force July 1, 2003, art. 1.

[85] UDHR, art. 2; ICCPR, art. 2(1):  “Each State Party to the Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”  See also, CEDAW, art. 1; and the Migrant Workers Convention), art. 7.

[86] ICESCR, art. 7.

[87] ICESCR, arts. 7(a) and 7(d).

[88] Some have argued that because domestic workers have responsibilities for child care or preparing meals that do not fit in a standard eight-hour workday, they should not be regulated by limits on their working hours.  Although their hours may be flexible, there should be limits on the maximum hours of work they perform each week, with provisions for overtime pay.  Furthermore, the requirements of many other jobs, such as health care providers, waiters, and pilots, do not fit the standard eight-hour workday model, yet workers in these jobs are still covered under domestic employment protections.

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