It is now over 15 years since a Filipino domestic worker, Flor Contemplacion, was executed in Singapore in the wake of a controversial criminal conviction. Has anything changed for the thousands of domestic workers in the city-state since then?
Put this question to Bridget Tan, a staunch advocate of domestic workers’ rights in Singapore, and she smiles. According to her a great deal has changed. Says Tan, who is founder of a non-government organisation that provides shelter for abused migrant domestic workers in Singapore, “The big difference today is that women are more aware of their rights.”
Tan credits the media for this development, adding that civil society organisations, including local ones advocating the rights of migrant workers, have also played a crucial role in heightening general awareness.
Whether she was guilty or innocent, Contemplacion’s tragic fate had come to symbolise the plight of Filipino domestic workers who have to endure abuse and discrimination in order to earn the few hundred Singaporean dollars needed to keep their families going back home. Today, however, they no longer suffer in silence. “They can decide, and say, ‘I’ve had enough’, leave their employer and get help,” says Tan.
Luzviminda Santos (name changed) is one of those women who knew when she had had enough. She left her employer after the latter had walked into her room without her permission and searched through her stuff, as though she were a thief. “I wanted to teach them a lesson,” says the nursing dropout who came to Singapore to support her husband and children.
Santos approached the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), founded by Tan in 2005 to assist foreign workers needing help. Her case is currently being investigated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) – as are the cases of a number of other women, mostly Filipino, many of whom are being temporarily being housed at HOME.
The Singapore government on its part has also brought in additional measures to ensure compliance with existing laws meant to protect migrant workers. However, much more needs to be done. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organisation, “Singapore has prosecuted physical abuse against domestic workers vigorously, but fails to guarantee them even one day off a week.” The organisation also notes that “Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has repeatedly rejected calls to extend labour law protections to domestic workers”.
Observed the Southeast Asian Research Centre, in a September 2010 report, “Up to the present, the legal and social status of domestic workers in Singapore remain very low…Foreign domestic workers receive very little legal protection from the state.”
Domestic workers in Singapore have a long list of negative experiences: Long working hours, low or unpaid wages, the exorbitant fees of recruitment agencies – which take as many as 10 months to pay off, leaving the domestic worker with nothing to send back home during that period – lack of weekly rest days; food deprivation; lack of mobility, and a whole gamut of abuse – verbal and otherwise – are some of the commonly voiced complaints.
It is worth noting that it was in 1995 – the same year as Contemplacion’s execution on March 17 – that Singapore acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the international treaty to protect women’s rights. Yet, today, domestic workers, who are entirely women, still remain outside the ambit of the national labour laws.
Nowhere is this more evident than with regard to Singapore’s Employment Act, which provides for a mandatory minimum wage and limits work to 44 hours a week. None of this is applicable to domestic workers because the law has conveniently excluded them as a category. The government has cited difficulty of enforcement, owing to the nature of domestic work, as justification for such exclusion.
Despite the constraints they face, there can be no denying that “foreign domestic workers have played a key role in the country’s economic and social success in the past decade, allowing both male and female citizens to work outside the home,” as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an independent local organisation, puts it.
Observes Rodolfo Sabulao, a labour attache of the Philippines based in Singapore, “They say they’re an open economy … (where) employers and employees are free to agree on the terms and conditions of employment. And (that) once they sign, they are presumed to be responsible contracting parties, and the government will not intervene.”
However, in a society where the employers have the upper hand – the law protects them more than it does migrant workers – there is urgent need for government regulations. Unfortunately these have been slow in coming. In its shadow report to the 49th Session of the United Nations Committee on CEDAW 2011, HOME stated that “existing statutory laws and regulations governing migrant domestic workers working in Singapore are in conflict with the principles of equality and non-discrimination of the CEDAW Convention.”
Consequently, “they are more vulnerable to infringements of their rights than other workers,” notes the 2011 Shadow Report submitted by TWC2 and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women to the CEDAW UN Committee.
While it has ratified CEDAW, Singapore did not vote for the International Convention on Domestic Workers’ Rights when it was approved in June 2011 in Geneva – a stance consistent with its refusal to include domestic workers in national legislation guaranteeing workers’ rights.
One-in-five or six homes employ domestic help in Singapore, which translates into some 200,000 workers – a tenfold increase from the late Seventies when the country first allowed foreign domestic helpers to work, following an increased number of women joining the Singaporean workforce. Among the estimated 1,79,000 Filipino migrant workers in Singapore, 72,000 – or 40 per cent – are live-in domestic helpers.
Rosalie Sta. Maria (name changed) was barely out of her teens when Contemplacion was hanged on charges of committing a double murder – charges that Filipinos widely perceive as trumped up. Yet, her fate seemed to have followed the same trajectory as that of Contemplacion. The 25-year-old single mother has endured months of verbal abuse and maltreatment from her female employer, who also unilaterally reduced her salary from S$350 to S$300, and subsequently to S$200, claiming to keep the remaining S$100 as savings for Maria. The hapless worker never reported any of this to anyone, lest her job would be put in jeopardy.
This is invariably the case, according to HOME’s 2011 Shadow Report to the CEDAW Committee. Migrant women are unlikely to report their abusers since they are not provided with services for their protection. It is only international pressure that has changed things a little but it’s not enough. “We are asking for policy changes like having domestic workers covered by the Employment Act and recognised as workers,” says Tan. However, she recognises that since “everything is political”, migrant workers are not a priority for the government. “The government gets votes from its citizens, not from migrants,” she adds.
Singapore prides itself on being a first world country. If that is really the case, it is time that it should also work towards complying with international treaties, like the Convention on Domestic Workers, and work towards giving women like Rosalie Sta. Maria a more secure life and future.