The privilege of employing domestic helpers is a reality that is not reserved for the wealthy in Singapore and Hong Kong. Foreign domestic workers (FDWs), most of whom come from the Philippines or Indonesia, are hired to carry out household duties such as laundry, cooking, cleaning and sometimes even taking care of the children/elderly in the house.
For many families, these maids become a part of the family themselves, like an adopted relative. They work for the family for years, watch the children grow up and are well-treated when in need. An example would be this family, who is trying to raise money to pay for their maid’s medical bills when she suffered a stroke.
However, since maids are so commonly employed in this society, this field of work has resulted in brutal abuse and exploitation due to the type of work, employers and employees involved as well as state actors.
Earlier in August this year, a 35-year old Filipino maid by the name of Sophia Rhianne Dullog fell to her death as she stood on the ledge of a high-rise building to clean the windows of her employer’s apartment in Hong Kong. The idea of forcing an employee to clean windows without safety equipment seems almost unfathomable under a ‘normal’ workers regulations – but domestic workers are not protected by the same rules.
Foreign domestic workers in Singapore and Hong Kong are not protected under the Employment Act, and so are not formally recognised as workers of the same standard. Hence, they have no fixed working hours, are forced to live-in with their employers and are often subjected to exploitation by employers and agencies alike. It is these issues that have prompted authors of the Global Slavery Index 2016 to announce Hong Kong as owning one of the highest numbers of modern day slaves at around 29,500 domestic helpers, though campaigners claim there to be more.
FDWs are also very often made to carry out activities unlisted in their contracts, even in Singapore despite the country’s reputation for it’s strict laws. They are made to clean offices or work as cashiers in their employer’s businesses. In Hong Kong, it has been confirmed that domestic workers undergo much of the same obligations, as well as others such as taking care of the elderly without having specified it before or work in homes of their employer’s friends. One domestic helper by the name of Alwati was made to work in her employer’s dog kernel business, and authorities only found out when she got injured one too many times.
Since both the working and living space between domestic workers and their employers often overlaps, and the duty specifications are left to be decided by the employers, the nature and conditions of their work is highly dependent on the values and nature of the employer’s own household.
The compulsory live-in rule enforced by both countries only adds to this problem. Many are still expected to be at the beck-and-call of their employers for 24 hours, creating unrealistically long working hours and no enforced/set time for breaks. Even on their days off, 38% of migrant workers say they have to work before they leave the house and/or in the evenings when they return. In Singapore, FDWs are even allowed to work without any off days for higher pay should the domestic worker opt to do so.
In addition to this, many employers do not ensure their workers receive their rights to a range of matters from privacy to the size of living spaces. Employers are often worried about their maids ‘mixing with the wrong crowd’ or forming intimate relations with other family members. In response to this, around 14% of migrant workers in Singapore and 33% in Hong Kong experience isolation issues or a restricted social life due to overbearing employees who confiscate their phones and restrict their social lives.
Though unimaginable, being forced to live-in with employers brings a more serious, horrifying problem than those of dangerous working conditions, overworking and little privacy. The number of abuse stories that arise from the environment created by these circumstances are disturbing and an imminent problem that grows more dire everyday.
Domestic workers are often victims of the cruelest forms of abuse, ranging from verbal to physical and even sexual abuse. Just in November, one woman was sentenced for pressing a heated spoon to her maid’s face as well as having hit her before with a belt, a bamboo pole and a tv remote. A week later, a man was prosecuted for raping his maid twice and sentenced to 13 years of jail and caning.
The worst part is that besides the persecution of their abusers, there is virtually no compensation for maids who undergo abuse. They are able to terminate their contracts and the outlets to do so are relatively accessible, but once that is done with, they have to support themselves without wages. In addition to that, if this emergency occurs within the first few months of employment, most FDWs are still indebted towards their employment agencies due to the sign-up fee and have to continually pay off the debt out of their own pockets. This bars maids from reporting their cases, despite their ability to do so.
It is not that any of the acts listed above are legal or even tolerated in either country, but the stigmatisation in society surrounding FDWs creates the impression that their services are interchangeable and flexible, despite the fact that they have been clearly stated and agreed upon beforehand.
A major cause of the abuse is the demeaning, long-standing attitude of employers towards domestic workers that persists. In the eyes of many, domestic workers are still considered lower-class, so their working conditions remain harsh and difficult because employers feel they have the right to subject their workers to those situations. This includes dangerous work such as cleaning windows and difficult work such as painting, trimming trees or working in extreme heat. Some employers even ban maids from sitting on sofas or force them to sleep in the kitchens.
Despite the lack of privacy, no promise of good working conditions and risk of abuse, many foreign domestic workers still look for jobs in Hong Kong and Singapore due to a range of different factors. The main incentive is economic, for their salary as an FDW is worth almost five times their average salary for work back home and most have large families in rural areas to support.
For some girls, becoming a FDW is even expected of them. To many of these workers the risk is still worth taking if the benefits outweigh the cost. Agencies take advantage of this and illegally charge overly-expensive sign up fees for their services, driving thousands of domestic workers into unnecessary debt.
The issues within this field of work are long-standing and deep rooted, but it would be highly unfair and untrue to say that no progress is being made in working to solve these problems. For example, Singapore actually has a very accessible outlet for workers to complaint of their problems before being provided with shelter until they can find new employment. They are constantly working on improving laws and most of the best improvements are made to the system itself. While Hong Kong’s government has been criticised for conducting very little action to protect these FDWs, many charities and activist groups have sprung up as a result and are pushing for change.
Erwiana, an Indonesian former domestic worker, turned into a symbol of hope as she began to campaign fiercely for the rights and protection of domestic workers and protect them from abuse and exploitation by agencies and employers alike. She was even labelled one of Time’s list of 100 influential people in 2014, having overcome the abuse by her employer to become an avid campaigner for FDW rights. Organisations like the HK Helpers Campaign sprang up, pushing to abolish the 2-week rule that forces FDWs to leave HK two weeks after unemployment and put an end to illegal agency fees. Another example, would be the charity Helpers for Domestic Helpers, which pushes for laws such as the one banning window-cleaning to be implemented in 2017.
In Singapore, fights advocating the protection of most domestic workers are between organisations/charities and governments. New systems are suggested now and then, such as better orientation and training programs as well as harsher punishments for abusive/neglectful employers. Activism is not as rampant here, but the various organisations and charities active constantly challenge and criticise Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower to do more, such as HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics) and TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too), so the matter is hardly swept under the rug. In 2017, a new shelter is even being opened to aid maids in abuse cases by providing mediation, re-training as well as counselling.
Although recent and upcoming rulings and services provided by the government better protect FDWs in Singapore, they still do not grant them the same recognition as workers compared to employees of other industries that is more urgently needed.
More of these abuse cases are beginning to surface, and we should continue to act before this situation reaches a point where it does become a more concerning problem than it already is. Fixing problems within the structure and legislations of the system is only effective when the public implements those changes. Improvement only begins with relearning attitudes and mindsets towards these migrant workers, firmly enforcing and reforming rules as we have and treating them as equals.