Asia Do domestic workers get enough protection under the law?

Do domestic workers get enough protection under the law?

Some of the common issues that domestic workers face are overwork, verbal abuse and salary-related disputes

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SINGAPORE- It is not uncommon to hear of domestic helpers being callously abused by their heartless employers. Often, these instances go unnoticed, until the helpers are in dire condition and need medical help.

According to an article by the Yahoo news, Hartatik*, an Indonesian domestic helper in Singapore, was in her third month of employment in 2017 when she began to experience constant violence inflicted upon her by her employers.

Her ordeal coincided with the tumultuous phase of the married couple’s relationship, as the young couple struggled to look after their children-a toddler and a two-month-old infant.

The female employer who was irritated with her husband’s attitude would often take out her anger on her helper by attacking her physically, sometimes with a pan, or stomping on her.

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Worse still,  a small mistake by Hartatik, such as preparing baby milk that was too hot, would result in an unfortunate and undeserving scald, where the female employer would pour hot water on Hartatik’s body.

One particularly brutal incident left Hartatik with a deformed left ear, where the couple had pulled and hit it repeatedly, leaving it swollen and infected. While they brought her to a doctor a week later, she was made to lie about her injuries.

For the next three months, every single day was a mental and physical torture for Hartatik as she had to thread on eggshells. Any innocuous error would result in her being kicked her out of the house.

“I can’t stand the pain, remembering all these memories,” the helper who is mother to a  teenage boy told Yahoo News Singapore tearfully in Bahasa Indonesia.

“I wanted to run away but I was scared.”

Hartatik’s case is another sad statistic of reported maid abuse in Singapore, where she was among the 253,800 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) living and working here as of December last year, up 23 per cent from 206,300 FDWs in 2011.

While these stories make us question humanity, they continue to happen and the grotesque details of each story surprises us more than the last. One would then begin to question if anything can be done to remedy the situation.

The ministry has declined to respond to media queries on the number of claims of abuse it received and number of resolved cases last year. It also declined to comment on the number of ongoing investigations.

To date, the top issues faced by the foreign domestic workers (FDWs) are overwork, verbal abuse and being caught in salary-related disputes, reported when they sought refuge at a shelter run by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

However, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) rebutted the findings, saying that it “does not accurately reflect the employment and working conditions of FDWs in Singapore”.

According to the Business Times, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) says, “Singapore has numerous measures in place to ensure the welfare and protection of foreign domestic workers here, including legal protection, education, safeguards and dedicated avenues for redress.”

There are also non-governmental organisations (NGOS) to help provide services and advocate for the rights of the migrant workers, such as the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

Yet, all these work is inadequate as they merely treat the symptoms of the problem and not the cause as the real issue lies with the mindset of Singaporeans. If legal loopholes are there, some people may continue to get away with these inhumane acts.

The basic labour rights of workers are dictated under the HOME-Liberty Shared report, under the Employment Act (EA), where rights such as working hours, sick leave, limits on overtime and notice periods, among others, are regulated. This, however, excludes foreign domestic workers, leaving them highly vulnerable to abuse.

Currently, provisions under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act are not equivalent to those under the EA and are too vaguely worded to offer reliable protection.

Laavanya Kathiravelu, an assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences, noted the existing recommendations under the Act for “adequate rest” are vague and not easily enforced as these workers work within private spaces.

Resultantly, the amount of rest given is typically left to negotiations with the employers.

She added that there is also a misled view that domestic work is not “real” work and this resulted in workers getting insufficient rest time or time off.

In all, forced labour and exploitation are complex issues and in certain cases, evidence is difficult to obtain or substantiate the above claims. Many times, these FDWs can only suffer in silence should they encounter nasty or unreasonable employers.

*Name is changed to protect the identity of the FDWs.

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