Sri Lankan domestic workers in Singapore

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Moving on from Malaysia where domestic workers were not faring particularly well – although still better off in general than the Gulf countries in their estimation – I crossed by land to Singapore. A city state built on migrant labour which continues to thrive on migrant labour.

Due to its history, Singapore has a richer tradition of policies to ensure equity for migrants than most other countries in the South-East Asian region.

Many of Sri Lanka’s domestic worker emigrants wish to work in Singapore – they have heard working conditions and pay is the best they can aspire to, over there. Sri Lankan domestic workers earn on average $500 in Singapore, nearly double the rates they tend to earn in the Gulf. Yet not many manage to make it there, due to the heavy fees they have to pay the agents. 

Conditions in Singapore

“Domestic workers generally pay agents $ 4,000 in their home countries to come here which is about six to eight months of their salary’s worth,” says Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, President of NGO TWC2 – which stands for Transient Workers Count Too. “If they transfer jobs within Singapore itself though, there are laws restricting the agents from charging more than two months of their salary.”

Thus, in contrast to the Rs. 200,000 cash gift given by the Gulf countries to attract women domestic workers from Sri Lanka, the women would have to pay Rs. 600,000 to get to Singapore – for which reason it is hard to find Sri Lankan maids there. They are a small minority among domestic workers there compared to Filipinos and Indonesians.

As per TWC2’s findings, the scales of oppression, even though it is known to exist, is much lesser than in neighbouring Malaysia or the Gulf countries. According to a survey of 472 foreign domestic workers they conducted over two years:

n90% reported working more than 10 hours per weekday with the average being 13.9 hours per day.

n30% were getting less than eight hours’ sleep each night, and one in three of those (about 10%) were getting less than six hours. Most of their waking hours were spent working. 75% reported that the time they had for themselves amounted to two hours or less per typical weekday. There was plenty of variation though. Some reported they enjoyed lots of free time, while a handful reported working 18 hours or more a day. Some reported having to wake up at 4 a.m.; some others reported being able to go to bed only at 1 or 2 a.m.

nAbout 90% slept in a bedroom. The others slept in unacceptable spaces, such as tiny, windowless storerooms or bomb shelters, or in open spaces like the living room or kitchen.

n20% were not provided a bed, but only a mattress on a floor; 1% had it even worse. They were not even provided a mattress, but slept on hard floor.

nOut of 429 respondents who provided sufficient details about who else shared their sleeping space, about 60% said they had the room/space to themselves. Of the 171 who had to share their sleeping space, 22 of them (13% of 171 or 5% of 429) reported that their co-sharers included a male teenager or adult. Only six of the male adults were elderly persons who needed assistance which might be why the domestic workers were assigned the same room — though that would still be against the law.

Workers’ rights

The Singaporean Government does engage with civil society activists concerned about migrant domestic workers’ rights – and has passed certain acts already to protect the workers’ rights. However the Government balances the views and needs of other stakeholders in the matter including employers and businesses, not just those concerned about migrants’ rights. Thus while changes have been made over the years, none are major structural changes which could address the power dynamic between employers and migrant workers, according to TWC2.

One of the most notable though long-overdue such acts was the passing of a compulsory day off for domestic workers in January 2013. Yet, according to research done by TWC2 over the next year, only 40% of workers actually got the leave, “because the law allows employers to buy their day off by compensating a day’s salary, which for most domestic workers amounts to less than $20,” says Noorashikin.

“Had these workers been covered by the Employment Act as most other categories of workers are, they would be paid double their daily wage for working on an off day. Sick leave and working hours for domestic workers are also not stipulated, only recommended by the Singaporean Government, leaving it to the discretion of the employer.”

By contrast, most male workers, including blue collar workers, are regulated under the formal sector covered by Singapore’s Employment Act – which stipulates scheduled work hours, overtime pay, holidays and sick leave, in addition to work injury insurance – clauses not covered for these domestic workers as they are classed under the informal sector.

Employers are required to purchase personal accident cover insurance as well as hospitalisation coverage valued at $ 15,000 per year for their domestic workers – which would cover only permanent disability or death due to accidents at a fixed rate. Not being covered by the Work Injury Compensation Act means that if they are injured on the job, they are not entitled to paid sick leave, higher coverage for medical expenses and compensation for a wider range of disability, according to Noorashikin.

TWC2 was founded by a group of women’s rights activists in 2004, after a case came to light of an Indonesian maid tortured so badly that she passed away. Cases like these are not unknown in Singapore although they are generally not the norm either.

Even though some workers complain of abuse, many also claim that they are treated very well. This again is not necessarily a good thing, according to civil society activist Kokila Annamalai. “A lot more work is milked out of women who are treated well compared to those who aren’t. These are women starved for affection and affirmation. They usually come from countries where they were not treated well for being women. Thus if the employing families treat them in a manner where they feel appreciated, they would invest themselves in the work far more than warranted.”

Yet, on the scales of abuse, the above could count as a good context – given NGOs there still receive regular complaints of active abuse – ranging from sexual violence to not being given a private space to sleep in or not being paid on time. There are cases of concern however, in how exactly to prove the abuse.

Only one case of successfully prosecuting an employer for rape exists in Singapore – in November 2016. Many more cases have been dismissed citing lack of evidence or credibility in the workers’ side of the story. In a notable case last month, an Indonesian domestic worker was jailed for accusing her employer’s elderly father-in-law of rape after allegedly having consensual sex with him, to pay off a loan she had taken from him.

Government intervention

The Ministry of Manpower in Singapore apparently does take seriously the charges brought by workers against employers. Proving the charges though is not easy for many of the domestic workers.

“In my experience helping workers lodge cases with the Ministry of Manpower – the workers have a hard time proving that they are overworked or not being given adequate food, poor accommodation or suffering emotional abuse. For cases of non-payment of salaries, workers who are not savvy and too trusting of employers who promise to pay them eventually or make them sign false salary slips also have a more difficult time to prove their case,” says Noorashikin.

If the employers are successfully prosecuted however, they are either jailed, or in less serious cases, banned from further employment of domestic workers. The Ministry of Manpower are also alert over employers who frequently lose/rehire domestic workers – if they go through more than four domestic workers a year, even if the workers didn’t bother to complain, the Ministry would conduct an investigation.

“My family hired and lost three Sri Lankan/Indian helpers in a year. One had to go back as her husband died suddenly, and the other two left citing sickness and homesickness,” says Malavan, himself a Sri Lankan engineer employed in Singapore. “The Ministry of Manpower sent me a letter of warning. They said if I lost one more, I couldn’t hire anymore and that I needed to come in for training on how to keep my employees happy.”

According to Jayabo Wijayasundara, Head of Labour at the Sri Lankan High Commission to Singapore, nearly all the reports of Sri Lankan domestic workers there are positive, with hardly any negative cases.

“The worst case I have seen in my time here is a worker who said she was not being fed enough. She required large portions of rice in her staple diet, while her employers ate more balanced diets that didn’t include much carbohydrates.  We referred her to a Singaporean shelter which helped rescue her. Other than that, our women’s main complaint for wanting to go back, if at all, is homesickness, not abusive employment.”

According to him, not many Sri Lankan domestic workers can be seen in Singapore, as competition is stiff from other sending countries such as Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar who come higher in the pecking order in terms of employer preferences. Nevertheless, he says the tide is changing, which the High Commission is happy about. An award conferred by the Government of Singapore for the Best Domestic Worker of the Year has been won by Sri Lankan workers for the last four years consecutively.

“Our workers are conscientious and Singaporeans like that. Singaporean employers are equally conscientious so our workers like it here too. There aren’t any complaints worthy of report.”

(Originally published in the Daily FT, Sri Lanka.)

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