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To work without rights is to be powerless in the face of abuse

Domestic workers face many forms of abuse in Singapore, and their limited rights under the law give them few ways to protect themselves.

Sam Okyere John Gee
6 February 2018

I'm John Gee, and I've worked with Transient Workers Count Too, a Singaporean NGO, since 2003. I've been president, vice president, and I currently work on research with the organisation.

Sam Okyere (oD): Would you be able to tell us some of the key issues faced by transient workers in Singapore, or in the region broadly speaking?

John: The major issues would be things like domestic workers who still don't get days off. We reckon that about 35% to 40% of domestic workers in Singapore still don't get days off. One of the big issues of complaint for all migrant workers is the amount of recruitment fees they pay. It ranges from something like five and a half to six months of salary deductions for Filipino work domestic workers, to something like 16 to 17 months for Bangladeshi construction workers.

Having an insecure status really is a big problem. Migrant workers come to Singapore, and the idea of the authorities and much of the population is that they come to work. So, when they stop working they shouldn't stay. This means they're not able to transfer to another job easily – it means leaving the country and maybe applying to come back. This creates situations where a worker will arrive in Singapore with the promise of a certain level of salary, and then is told by the employer, ‘well actually, I'm going to pay you $200 less. You can take it or leave it’.

The chances are they'll say, ‘I'll take it’, because the consequence of going back are terrible. Your family may have lent you money. They may have helped you. And they expected you to go and support them. They don't expect you to come back as a burden on them. These are the kind of things we need to look at. This kind of tied system of sponsorship.

Sam (oD): To what degree are the problems faced by domestic workers given attention? I think that those familiar with the topic are painfully aware that in comparison to other categories of workers deemed to have been trafficked or enslaved, there doesn't appear to be the same international political policy response to the problems you've identified in relation to transient workers and domestic workers specifically. What are your thoughts on that divide between how we approach and assess different categories of workers?

John: We've got to get away from the idea of deserving and undeserving migrant workers. I think very, very few migrant workers are actually undeserving. They all make sacrifices for their families and they're often very committed people. They're ambitious. They're sometimes the more ambitious and educated people in their communities and they want to do something for their families. They're often not very self-centred, for example. These are things that we would normally respect in our own communities.

We've got to be careful about only focusing on the very worst problems that some workers face.

We've got to be careful about only focusing on the very worst problems that some workers face. Some things we can relate to very easily. In Singapore, for example: when it comes to physical abuse of a domestic worker you'll find the NGOs, the public, and the government all on the same page. It's just completely unacceptable. But this doesn't mean that a lesser abuse isn't also a form of abuse. Being paid the lowest wages in the country and working the longest hours, this is also abusive. So for abuse and exploitation, we shouldn't have to assure ourselves that it is at a very at a great extreme for us to find it objectionable.

Sam (oD): If there were a silver bullet, if there were that one kind of policy, imperative, or practical action which you would want to see implemented now, what would it be?

John: What I would say is that if a person has been given a work permit that allows them to be in the country for, say, two years for a contract, make it a permit to be in the country to work. If they wish to change employers, they should be able change employers. That would make an overnight change for workers, because if you can vote with your feet to leave an abusive situation, it makes tremendous difference. If you're confined to the same employer they have a great deal of power over you.

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♒ ♒ ♒ ♒ /flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sam (oD:) In your opinion, what accounts for what is regarded as a reluctance by policymakers, both locally and internationally, to grant this very sensible opportunity to migrant domestic workers and to lots of other migrant workers as well? Is it simply a lack of interest? Is it simply down to questions of population growth and dynamics, or is there something else to it?

John: I'd say there are two things. One is the idea of population growth. Singapore has very restrictive immigration policies – they want to make sure that migrant workers work and then go home. There are no exceptions. Once you're a migrant worker you can't even come back to Singapore years later as, say, a business man or something like this to settle. You're permanently this unwanted migrant worker. So this is what you might call demographic consideration.

The other thing, of course, is that employers feel that they're advantaged by having these workers at their mercy, under their power. And so there's this block of people who feel it's in their interest for the present situation not to change. Not all employers are like that. There's employers who would like to see change, but some employers definitely want to have this great deal of power over those they employ simply so that they can keep their costs down.

Now there's a general feeling that at least if physical abuse is taking place or if a domestic worker is being starved it's something you speak up about.

Sam (oD): For the domestic workers themselves, are there opportunities for collective action, places for resistance in the areas that you're working in, and to what extent are these either closed down or allowed to operate?

John: Domestic workers don't have much opportunity to organise forms of resistance. What they can do is to exchange advice. So they will tell each other about coping mechanisms. You might find that two domestic workers meet and one will say, ‘Oh my mom’ – you know, her employer – ‘told me to do this and I don't want to do that’. Then the more experienced worker will advise her on how to respond to the employer without provoking the employer. Occasionally, when a worker has been in a rather abusive situation, she will get advised or helped by another worker to escape. But then that means going out of employment and trying to claim your rights through legal processes, and that's something that a worker will only resort to in an extreme situation.

Sam (oD): Finally, you've obviously worked in this area for a considerable amount of time. Looking back to where you began this activism and advocacy work, and where we are now, are we heading towards more a emancipatory situation, or are we stagnating, or going backwards? What's your read of the lay of the land?

John: I think in Singapore things have got a bit better. It's very slow but, for example, when we started work I would say that something like 55%-60% of domestic workers didn't get any days off at all, and now the figure is more like 35%-40%. You'll see more optimistic figures – I doubt them, but still, it's progress. There is more active intervention by the government in abusive behaviour towards domestic workers.

There's a change in public attitudes as well. That was very important. When we started work, much of the public would take the attitude that if something happens in the home situation, they shouldn't intervene. They shouldn't have anything to say about it. It's the other family's private matter. But now there's a general feeling that at least if physical abuse is taking place or if a domestic worker is being starved, this kind of thing, it's something you speak up about. You inform the authorities and they intervene. So there have been changes for the better.

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