Several foreign women jumped to their deaths from balconies of condominiums that defined Singapore's skylines. The Singaporean government may have learned from these incidents because of international pressure. While some amendments have been made on its laws, being a foreign domestic worker remains like being inside the lion's den.

In 1998, Singapore amended its Penal Code, increasing penalties for employers found to have committed physical and sexual abuses. It is also implementing an accreditation programme for recruitment agencies, including an orientation for both new and old employers and employees. The Ministry of Manpower has also created the Foreign Manpower Management Division which oversees the investigation and prosecution of cases involving physical and sexual abuses as well as unpaid salaries.

But for Theresa W. Devasahayam, a feminist scholar who has been studying foreign labour and health in Singapore, these changes are largely for saving face, instead of empowering foreign domestic workers. “The amendments happened because of the embarrassment from the Indonesians who fell of the balconies and not because of human rights discourses. In reality, the laws are still about placements, protecting the government and the employers more than the domestic workers.”

The more basic protection for foreign domestic workers are still absent in Singapore's Employment of Foreign Workers Act, which is supposed to set the number of working hours and rest days, the minimum wage, and access to benefits.

Aside from the law's silence such basic protection, the privacy of the households make foreign domestic workers more vulnerable. The usual working hours in the city state is 40 hours per week. But this often extends for foreign domestic workers especially in households of extended families. It was observed that some people bring their household tasks to relatives who are hiring foreign domestic workers. Although the latter perform additional care-giving, cleaning and laundry work, they are not given extra compensation.

There is likewise no additional compensation for foreign domestic workers who survived various abuses. Devasahayam shared that while an employer can be given a 20 year jail term for rape, the foreign domestic worker is only entitled for accident compensation. “And yet you cannot say that the incident was an accident for it was deliberate,” she added.

The Singaporean government is also not keen in intervening on onerous “third party loans,” particularly in cases where recruitment agencies exact payment from foreign domestic workers through salary deduction. For some foreign domestic workers , this means working in Singapore for 13 months at US$20 a month.

“Attention can be easily generated on labour violations against construction workers especially since their work is exposed and they stay on an open space. Most domestic workers are inside high rise buildings,” Devasahayam said. It is also for this reason that it becomes harder for foreign domestic workers to organise. As Singapore is a police state, that even voluntary help organisations (VHOs), including church-based groups work within their limits.

Devasahayam was among the guest in a special lecture on gender and migration issues organised by the University of the Philippines Centre for Women's Studies (UP CSW), UP College of Social Work and Community Development (UP CSWCD), and Isis International on 30 September 2008 at the University of the Philippines.

Other sources:

Human Rights Watch. (2005). Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore. URL: http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/singapore1205/index.htm

Yeoh, Brenda SA. (2007). Singapore: Hungry for Foreign Workers at All Skill Levels. URL: http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=570

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