More support needed for migrant domestic workers in Singapore

July 7, 2021

According to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), an average of 270 reports of migrant domestic worker abuse have been made each year from 2017 to 2020. From physical violence to starvation, psychological abuse to excessive working hours, these statistics and the spate of abuse cases that have gone public in the news in recent months have been nothing short of alarming.

One of the more extreme cases is the death of 24-year-old Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don, who was physically assaulted on a near-daily basis for 10 months before she passed away in July 2016. This tragedy is a reflection of some of the horrors that migrant domestic workers here face behind closed doors. More often than not, these victims of abuse aren’t allowed to leave their employer’s home or have friends or contact with outsiders, which makes it even tougher for such cases to be noticed and reported in time.

This is why, following the court hearing of 41-year-old Gayathiri Murugayan (Piang’s employer and abuser), MOM announced that they would start making surprise visits and checks to 200 homes of employers of migrant domestic workers per month. This initiative is a bid to ensure that living conditions for our migrant domestic workers are of an acceptable standard, and also allows MOM to disseminate information regarding avenues of support to both employers and domestic workers.

While this is a welcome move on the government’s part, there is a lot more that can be done for our migrant domestic workers on an individual level. In November last year, Singaporean co-operative A Good Space (AGS) set out to discover how locals on the ground think we as a society can better support the needs and wellbeing of our migrant domestic workers. Together with the OPPi team, a crowdsourcing campaign was launched among 65 participants who were then split into two main groups (A and B) by OPPi’s analytic capabilities based on their responses. Group A consisted of approximately 19 participants, most of whom were employers, while group B consisted of approximately 43 participants, most of whom were non-employers.

A group of female foreign domestic workers sitting on a bench in a sheltered area, chatting in small groups.
As of December 2020, there are approximately 247,400 migrant domestic workers in Singapore (statistics courtesy of MOM).

Of these 65 participants, all of them agreed that employers have a responsibility to not only fulfil their legal obligations, but to look out for their migrant domestic worker’s physical and mental well-being. A vast majority of them also agreed that employers should support migrant domestic workers who wish to pursue other interests outside of work, such as signing up for courses or participating in recreational activities (95.38% consensus), and that migrant domestic workers should be able to access dedicated mental health services (96.92% consensus).

Interestingly, though 95.38% of participants agreed that migrant domestic workers should have protected personal time, during which employers should not request them to work, only 74% of them agreed that migrant domestic workers should have fixed contracts, with standard working hours and overtime pay. This discrepancy could lie in the fact that “protected personal time” could be interpreted as letting migrant domestic workers have a day off once or twice a week, as opposed to having strict working hours with overtime pay each day.

A significant proportion of respondents that disagreed with or were left undecided on the latter statement were from group A (i.e. more employers). One of the concerns raised by a participant with regard to this is that standard working hours are very difficult to enforce for domestic workers that live and work in the same household, because this blurs the line between work and personal life as working from home does for many of us.

Granted, this is a valid concern and a very real problem, especially for domestic workers that have to provide round-the-clock care for younger children or sickly elderly. But as with every problem, there is always a solution. For instance, fairer compensation could be given to these domestic workers that have to work longer or more irregular hours in the form of a higher pay or benefits like mental health support, which is important because “many (migrant domestic workers) prefer to sacrifice mental health for the sake of earning more money to send back home”, as pointed out by another participant.

But the topic of pay and fair wages is a rather tricky one to manoeuvre. When asked if they felt that migrant domestic workers are generally not paid enough, a significant proportion of respondents were left undecided (25%), most of whom are once again from group A. A number of participants raised a point about taking the cost of food and lodging into consideration, which is something that is borne by employers for domestic workers that live in their employer’s homes.

A bird's eye view of the Singapore city skyline in the evening, with Marina Bay Sands in clear view.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Worldwide Cost of Living study, Singapore is one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world in 2020.

The cost of living in Singapore is quite high, so the pinch of having an additional mouth to feed and shelter is really only felt by employers (as opposed to non-employers), which might explain the differences in responses between groups A and B. However, one thing that employers might overlook is the more intangible toll that working alone in a foreign land might bring. As mentioned by one participant, “tied to their salaries back home, I would think their pay is alright, but given the amount of responsibility they take on and the mistreatment of some helpers by locals, I'm more concern about the intangibles like welfare, physical and mental health”.

This, coupled with the fact that migrant domestic workers are socially isolated for the most part, if not the entirety of the week, makes them a lot more susceptible to mental health struggles. When asked if they thought that migrant domestic workers are more vulnerable to social isolation because they are required to remain in their workplace at all hours throughout the week, 100% of participants that were migrant domestic workers agreed, whereas 31.82% of participants that were employers disagreed.

No further comments or thoughts were left with regard to this particular statement, but it’s curious to see that employers form the bulk of participants that disagree with this statement. But when it comes down to it, only domestic workers can say for sure how having to stay home all week affects them, and from these results, it’s clear that being isolated for an extended period of time does have a negative impact on their mental health.

One potential solution could be to offer migrant domestic workers the option of living outside their employer’s home if they wish. To this statement, 100% of participants that were migrant domestic workers agreed, while a significant proportion of participants who were employers either disagreed (18.18%) or were left undecided (27.27%).

The two main points of concern raised by participants with regard to having domestic workers living outside on their own is their job scope and the issue of paying rent. This might be a popular option among domestic workers, but for those who are hired to provide round-the-clock care specifically for young children or sickly elderly, this might not be very viable. In cases like these, alternatives should be looked into to protect the wellbeing of domestic workers, like perhaps having one or two full days off a week for them to decompress from work. As for the issue of rent, it could be something that employers and domestic workers agree upon individually. One possible solution could be that employers provide a slightly higher pay to their domestic workers since they won’t have to cover their food and lodging expenses, which would then in turn allow domestic workers more financial flexibility to finance their own external lodging.

Of course, external aid can definitely be rendered by organisations and the government in situations like these. Grants could be implemented for domestic workers who wish to live externally for the sake of their mental and emotional health, and a list of subsidised or more affordable housing options could be provided by non-government organisations. Support groups could also be set up to give advice to domestic workers exploring various options, or to perhaps pair domestic workers up with potential roommates to lessen the financial burden of rent.

A view from a high level of a cluster of red and white HDB blocks of differing heights.
When asked if they felt that migrant domestic workers should be allowed to rent heartland HDB units or condominium apartments in small groups, or live in dedicated hostels, only 68% of participants agreed, most of whom were from group B (i.e. non-employers).

One of the more interesting findings from the engagement session is that when asked if they felt that employers should treat domestic workers like part of the family, 69% of all participants, and 100% of participants in group A (mostly employers) agreed, while 37% of participants in group B (mostly non-employers) were left undecided.

To this, some participants felt that it really depends on whether or not employers and domestic workers click or are able to form a close bond. Others felt that treating domestic workers as part of the family might lead to the assumption that anything goes in the household as the lines between a professional and a personal relationship between employers and domestic workers are blurred. Both these points are valid, but as some other participants pointed out, “we can still have professional boundaries while still respecting and being kind to each other” and that “it does not detract from the fact that we still need to ensure the physical and mental well-being of our helper”.

No matter the stance, it’s comforting to know that locals generally agree that it is important to look out for and care for the wellbeing of our migrant domestic workers. But what’s most heartwarming is that 100% of domestic workers and 81.82% of employers that participated in this session agreed that they would like to be treated as family.

Despite these generally positive results, there is still a bigger picture of xenophobia against migrant workers in Singapore. As mentioned by a participant, “Singaporeans seem to treat them differently and somehow seem to think that MDWs are not entitled to labour protections like leave or using phones like Singaporeans do”, which is something that we should actively work to iron out within our communities. We should also have more conversations with migrant domestic workers in Singapore to better understand their thoughts on working here and what they feel can and should be done better.

The issue of the treatment of migrant domestic workers is a very complex one, and as one participant pointed out, there are many cans of worms being opened up and this small crowdsourcing campaign is but the tip of the iceberg and a mere starting point for what can and should be done to support our migrant domestic workers. There’s a long road ahead, but we can all start off by extending care and empathy towards the migrant domestic workers in our lives. Have a conversation with them, buy them a drink or their favourite snack, and just really spend some time getting to know them. We can actually learn a lot from them, and who knows, we might just be a lot more similar than we think.



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